Broadway Playhouse set to open in September

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Above: Artist rendering of reconfigured Broadway Playhouse

 

Coming Soon:  “Traces”, “Working” and Sutton Foster

 

by Scotty Zacher

Get ready, Chicago, for Broadway in Chicago’s newest venue: the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place.  Previously known as Drury Lane Water Tower, the space will join BIC’s current treasure-trove of venues: Cadillac Palace Theatre, Ford Center for the Performing Arts (aka Oriental Theatre) and Bank of America Theatre sutton-26(aka Shubert Theatre). BIC has signed a long-term agreement with General Growth Properties (owner/manager of Water Tower Place) that will allow for the renovation and management of the revitalized space.

“This theatre will give Broadway in Chicago the ability to attract those productions that are better suited for a more intimate theatre. We hope to be able to expand the theatrical experiences we offer with this intimate and unique venue in the heart of the Magnificent Mile,” says James L. Nederlander (president, Nederlander Organization).

Inaugural productions for the playhouse will include An Evening with Sutton Foster (music direction by Michael Rafter), Traces and a newly adapted version of Stud Terkel’s musical Working (fondly known as “the working-man’s Chorus Line”), in association Broadway-composer Stephen Schwartz.

Though not announced at today’s press event, speculative capacity is set for 550 seats, a nice-sized theatre that will still allow for a more intimate experience when compared to the super-sized venues in Chicago’s theatre-district.

In my view, there are two hurdles that the reincarnated space needs to tackle: the drawbacks of the location, as well countering the fact of high ticket-prices versus its less-than-opulent ambience.

  1. First of all, the location. Though there is a plus for being amidst the Magnificent Mile, there is also the fact that it’s actually more than a block walk from the main drag – and a rather cement-themed walk at that.  Though this might seem trivial, a non-pedestrian-friendly designation is detrimental to any business, be it a coffeehouse, flowershop or, yes, a large theatre.  Even though the product on stage is the main attraction for an audience member, another important aspect is pre-show/post-show experience.  And a nondescript marquee in a cement-canyon a full block away from Michigan Avenue does not a prospective customer make.  One suggestion to up-the-ante would be to build a flashy LCD banner, much like the State Street Channel 7 banner, directly on Michigan Avenue, just to the north of Water Tower Place (this technique has been effective for side-street Broadway houses).  This could be a win-win for the city as it would make Michigan Ave. more exciting (as attempted with the NBC ground-level studio) as well as give instant attention to the advertised show (I suspect, however, there might be blow-back from the Water Tower Place residents…)
  2. Drury Lane Water Tower many times expected their shows to have much longer runs than what actually occurred.  This can be partially attributed to the what I call the experience-gap: People are expecting an opulent feeling that they previously experienced at the Oriental and/or Cadillac Palace, but in fact get a more germane theatre that they might equate with many Captioned Photo - 6smaller cities.  Let’s face it, part of the draw of wildly-successful “Wicked” was not only the show, but the ooh-factor of the lobby and the painted ceilings and Asian-themed accents. You saw this on the faces of the adults and kids when entering the space, that then surely increased the probability of a strong word-of-mouth occurrence.  Obviously BIC can’t recreate the theatre to match a historic theatre-palace.  Instead, care can be taken in the actual production choices – productions need to have something special about them that supersedes the lacking inner ambience.  It looks like BIC has chosen just such productions, with high-def raucous shows like “Traces,” that take advantage of the intimate nature of the space to heighten the show’s energy (think “Blue Man Group”), as well as concerts that lend themselves to more intimate venues (i.e., “An Evening with Sutton Foster”). And fans will flock to see a reconceived version of rarely-produced Workingespecially being that it’s based on the book written by Chicago’s beloved Studs Terkel.

In the end, I have the highest respect and expectations for Broadway in Chicago’s new venue endeavor.  Through their vision and hard work they have helped elevate Chicago as a theater draw for the entire Midwest, as well as a starting point for numerous Broadway-bound shows (e.g., Spamalot, Producers, Addams Family).   We at Chicago Theater Blog wish them the best of luck.

 M:\Projects910 Drury Lane Theater Renvoation1 Drawings3 Families\Lighting Fixtures\Broadway Playhouse-scyphers.pdf LOBBY

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REVIEW: Swear Jar (The Annoyance Theatre)

 

Veteran sketch director can’t save “Swear Jar”

 
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Annoyance Theatre presents
 
Swear Jar
 
Directed by Mick Napier
Musical direction by
Lisa McQueen
Annoyance Theatre, 4830 N. Broadway (map)
through May 1st   (more info | tickets$15)

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

Annoyance Theatre‘s founder and artistic director Mick Napier has never once directed a sketch show for his own company in its 22-year history. It’s not that he doesn’t have experience in the medium. In fact, Napier’s a bit of a Chicago comedy legend, having directed more than 15 Second City revues and working with the likes of Stephen Colbert and Amy Sedaris.

mick-napier Swear Jar is Napier’s debut sketch revue for his own theatre. And although it definitely embraces the Annoyance aesthetic—which can be described as subversive, in-your-face, punk rock comedy—it never gains the momentum it needs to be a truly good sketch show.

It’s not that there aren’t some shining moments of hilarity. A scene where an alter boy (Chris Witaske) makes a lustful pass at a kind-hearted priest (Andrew Peyton) inverts the played out power dynamic with great success. Another scene (once again starring Witaske opposite straight man Peyton) depicts a desperate suit salesman quickly crumbling before an unsuspecting customer. Witaske’s solid acting skills and captivating stage presence make the demented sketch one of the best in the show.

The musical sketches, save for the closer which is a painfully unfunny and poorly executed piece about fast food, are big winners as well, thanks in part to musical director Lisa McQueen’s strong songwriting abilities. In particular, Vanessa Bayer’s rap about battling Leukemia is a perfect blend of catharsis and comedy.

Like a good stand-up act, a sketch show is only going to work if you can maintain momentum. One dip in the running order is acceptable, but when you have a string of sketches that just aren’t funny, then it’s difficult to keep the audience’s attention, even if the humor is meant to be somewhat shocking.

This was the case for many bits that may have started strong but then, with no real conclusion, just floundered and died on stage. A sketch about a man (Brian Wilson) who gets the bright idea to sit on the car’s gearshift plays out in full just as I describe it. A woman’s-only afternoon tea starts funny as the ladies passive aggressively take pot shots at each other’s failing relationships. It even gets to a second beat as one woman is berated by the hostess’s husband for spilling her drink on the floor. And just as you’re waiting for the final punch of the sketch, it awkwardly and abruptly ends.

showposter Swear Jar would be a much funnier show if it was consistent. There are just too many bumps throughout the revue. Many of the performers seem fairly green to the stage, having difficulty projecting their voices beyond the front two rows. (Witaske and Bayer, however, do stand out as consistently strong players.) The writing, too, is all over the place, often trying harder to shock than to elicit laughter. Although there is something to be said about shocking an audience, contemporary culture has raised the bar on what passes for taboo to a point that this sketch show just doesn’t hit, save for a sketch about a girl with a heavy flow.

With directing Swear Jar, Napier doesn’t abandon the Second City sketch format that inserts short “blackout” pieces between longer sketches, but he does tweak it. There is an outpouring of short, 30-second sketches near the end of the show, which helps bring up the energy at the end. But overall, the revue drags when the comedy just isn’t there, and at other times, the slew of short pieces can feel frantic and choppy. The show could also be trimmed down by 30 minutes. With an intermission, the 10 p.m. revue didn’t end until midnight.

Swear Jar just never hits its stride. Instead it limps across the finish line. There are some great moments and solid performances here and there, but the bulk of the revue feels directionless, which is a shame when you have the talent of Napier in the director’s chair.

 
Rating: ★★
 

RUN: Previews | March 13 and 20 | 10:00 PM | $10  //  Saturday | March 27 – May 1 | 10:00 PM | $15

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