SR Digest: How do you solve a problem like the Broadway Playhouse?

Issue #12—March 21, 2019

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Does punk rock clash with plush seats?

Actors Cyrus Lane, James Smith, Justin Goodhand and Paolo Santalucia play Johnny, Marky, Joey and Dee Dee Ramone in Four Chords and a Gun. Photograph: Dahlia Katz

On Tuesday, Broadway in Chicago announced that Four Chords and a Gun is coming to the Broadway Playhouse in May.

The play, written by actor John Ross Bowie (ABC’s Speechless), is about the seminal punk band the Ramones and their 1979 recording session with producer Phil Spector for the album End of the Century. The play’s titles references rumors that Spector, who is now serving a prison sentence for second-degree murder, pulled a gun on the band during the recording sessions.

The Broadway Playhouse is a 500-seat theater with plush red seats and stylized chandeliers that’s tucked into the Water Tower Place complex anchoring the north end of retail-tourist mecca the Magnificent Mile. The other components of Water Tower Place are a high-end shopping mall, the Ritz-Carlton hotel and the luxury condominiums where Oprah once lived.

It’s a weird place to put Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny and Tommy.

It’s been nearly 10 years since Broadway in Chicago added the Broadway Playhouse to its portfolio of downtown theaters. And I still don’t think they’ve figured out what to do with it.

BIC, the two-decade-old consortium that owns the Cadillac Palace, James M. Nederlander and CIBC Theatres in the Loop and presents most of the touring theater productions that come through Chicago, actually started programming the Broadway Playhouse in 2006. The DeSantis family, of Drury Lane Theatre fame, had reconverted the Water Tower space—which had spent a couple of decades as a movie theater—back into a legit theater in 2005.

Drury Lane Water Tower’s programming, which kicked off with the Chicago premiere of The Full Monty, didn’t catch fire with Mag Mile passersby; by the following year, the DeSantises were renting out the space to Broadway in Chicago for productions like The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Altar Boyz, and Xanadu, which called for a somewhat more intimate feel than BIC’s 2,000-seat Loop houses. In 2010, BIC took over the space for good, stripping out Drury Lane’s signature red velvet and crystal chandeliers in favor of a slightly more modern look and redubbing it the Broadway Playhouse.

Since then, though, Broadway in Chicago has treated the Broadway Playhouse as its repository for Off-Broadway fare. Sometimes that’s been the right call: It was the perfect venue for a Chicago sit-down of Nora and Delia Ephron’s innocuous trifle Love, Loss and What I Wore, or for the streetwear-circus thrills of 7 Fingers’ Traces.

More often, however, all BIC seems to be able to find for this prime Mag Mile real estate is derivative pop-culture dross like the Harry Potter parody Potted Potter or the dreadful non-Equity tour launch of Evil Dead—The Musical. Lame imitations of TV shows, such as I Love Lucy and Cheers, are becoming common there as well.

I’m not saying there’s no place for those kinds of shows in Chicago. But I am saying Michigan Avenue probably isn’t the place. The Annoyance, which might well have invented that subgenre with The Real Live Brady Bunch? Hell in a Handbag, which is churning out new “lost episodes” of The Golden Girls for reasonable ticket prices at casual venues with easily accessible bars? Those are the places.

Even a commercial-theater advocate like the Tribune’s Chris Jones balked at the prices Broadway in Chicago was charging last month for the unauthorized, non-Equity Friends! The Musical Parody: “$92 top! Come on!”

Tickets for Four Chords and a Gun might not go that high; Tuesday’s press release pegged the prices at $39.95–$69.95, “with a select number of premium tickets available.” And to be clear, I’m making no judgments here about Four Chords and a Gun. Bowie appears to be a legitimate, longtime Ramones fan, and the play got respectable reviews in an earlier production in Los Angeles; the production that’s arriving in Chicago will originate in Toronto in April, and features a solid Canadian cast.

What I’m positing is really two things. One: Chicago needs another space where commercial theater productions can feel comfortably cheap. Broadway in Chicago has all the logistical infrastructure in place to support touring shows like Friends! The Musical Parody, but it doesn’t have a theater where a show like that makes sense. And there really aren’t many theaters like that available in the city. The Briar Street Theatre has been monopolized by Blue Man Group for multiple decades now; the Apollo is too frequently occupied by long runs, whether it’s Million Dollar Quartet or Menopause the Musical; the owners of the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts sold that building to a church eight years ago.

The one commercial theater space that does seem to work—when the right tenants find it, which is not often—is the Royal George in Lincoln Park, across the street from the rapidly expanding Steppenwolf Theatre complex. Perhaps Broadway in Chicago should look into acquiring the Royal George, with its three adaptable stages, as a more appropriate and more affordable home for the smaller, sillier touring shows it wants to present.

That would clear the way for my second goal: Use the Broadway Playhouse for legit shows that would benefit from a smaller house and longer runs, just like BIC did back when it was still Drury Lane Water Tower. Imagine if tours of shows like Fun Home and Once on This Island, both of which played the intimate Circle in the Square Theatre on Broadway, could do eight weeks at the Broadway Playhouse instead of two weeks in the cavernous Cadillac Palace or Nederlander.

Broadway in Chicago is trying something new with the Playhouse this fall—it’s inviting TimeLine Theatre Company’s production of J.T. Rogers’s Oslo to the Mag Mile, and presenting the play as part of the BIC subscription season. TimeLine has been there once before, with a commercial remount of the Julia Child bioplay To Master the Art in 2013. It’s no small matter here that Broadway in Chicago vice president Eileen LaCario is also the president of TimeLine’s board of directors, but I’d also love to see BIC keep moving in this direction—really putting its money where its mouth is in terms of promoting Chicago’s homegrown theater alongside its tours. Just no more shitty imitation sitcoms, please.

Reviews and other views

I’ll be back in the swing of new reviews starting this weekend, but for now please check out a few newly unlocked reviews of shows that closed last weekend:

A Doll’s House, Part 2 at Steppenwolf

Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Mike Pence Sex Dream at First Floor Theater

Photograph: WHO IS SHE

The Total Bent at Haven Theatre/About Face

Photograph: Austin D. Oie

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