Critical Reappraisal

Roadworks Productions artistic director Debbie Bisno was perplexed after opening the play Was in January. She couldn’t understand why the critical response to the show varied so widely. Adapted from Geoff Ryman’s novel of the same name, the play was lauded by the Reader’s Albert Williams, who called Was “a superb new story theater piece,” but it received a mixed review from the Tribune’s Richard Christiansen, who complained that it was “half-breed theater, neither play nor novel.”

Unwilling to let the matter drop, Bisno decided to find out what the general public thought about Was, which continues through March 10 at the Victory Gardens Theater. “I wanted to see if the story-theater style of performance really created an obstacle for our audiences,” she says. So Roadworks set up a promotion to give away tickets on WXRT, and ticket winners were given a brief questionnaire to fill out after seeing the play. Bisno asker her critics for a day to respond to several questions: Did they like the show? Would they recommend it? Why or why not?

Bisno’s experiment yielded 16 report cards and found that 12 respondents (or 75 percent of the total) liked the play. But the other four found some fault with the production; their reasons ranged from slow pacing to lack of substance. One woman said she disliked everything about Was, writing, “I can’t remember the last time I spent two hours in a theater thinking ‘why are they telling me this?'” She went on to say that she “felt manipulated.”

While the overwhelming majority of Bisno’s lay critics indicated they liked Was when replying with a simple yea or a nay, their responses were more complicated when asked to rate the production on a scale of one to ten. No one gave the show a ten. The highest rating was an eight, but most of the respondents settled on a six or seven.

While professional critics may go to shows four or five nights a week, Bisno’s lay critics said they attend the theater four or five times a year. Several said they hardly go at all. One 26-year-old art teacher said she had “probably seen seven or eight plays” in her entire life.

When Will Show Boat Jump Ship?

Is producer Garth Drabinsky hedging his bets on the Chicago run of Show Boat? Though the annual report of Drabinsky’s Livent Inc. said the musical would stay put at least until December 1997, tickets are currently on sale only for performances through September 8, 1996. Show Boat, which opens March 14, has taken in advance sales of more than $10 million after a year of heavy advertising, but a source indicates Drabinsky may have recently concluded that Show Boat couldn’t last nearly two years in Chicago.

Such a turn of events would open up the Auditorium Theatre for a spring 1997 engagement, and it already appears there’s been some interest from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Company. The production company has already announced it’s bringing the first national tour of Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard to the Civic Opera House for 11 weeks next year. But with a seating capacity of 2,400, the Auditorium could be a more attractive venue for Sunset Boulevard than the Civic Opera House, with its 3,600 seats. Really Useful is reportedly skeptical about filling the Opera House without a major star. Sunset Boulevard will feature former Chicagoan Linda Balgord, who also starred in Livent’s tour of an earlier Lloyd Webber musical, Aspects of Love, which failed to attract large audiences here during its 1992 run. A Civic Opera House source says the theater has a “signed and sealed” contract for Sunset Boulevard, but the producers could still buy out the contract for a price. A Really Useful spokesman said, “We are still on track for opening at the Opera House on March 28, 1997.”

Joffrey’s Commercial Appeal

The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago did strong business in its hometown debut, thanks in large part to an advertising blitz on television that started a mere three weeks before opening night. Last month’s eight performances of Billboards at the Rosemont Theatre grossed $542,000, about $100,000 more than expected, according to Joffrey executive director Arnold Breman. The total was impressive, considering that this was the fourth Chicago presentation of Billboards. Ticket sales had been sluggish until the slick, high-energy TV commercial hit the air touting the show and its rock score by Prince. The 30-second commerical was shot when the Joffrey was still a New York-based troupe, so the spot’s voice-over had to be changed to reflect the company’s new name and base of operations. Though more than 18,000 customers showed up for the Rosemont engagement, executives involved in booking the theater say it’s unlikely that the venue will be offering more dance. “I don’t see the Rosemont Theatre as a dance mecca,” says Tim Orchard, an executive with Ogden Entertainment, which produced the show and paid the troupe a flat fee for their performances. According to Orchard, the Rosemont will continue to look at musical concerts and theater as its bread-and-butter attractions.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.