Dueling Nutcrackers

It’s been said that The Nutcracker may be the ultimate Christmas treat because it celebrates overconsumption. But this year Chicagoans might be in for a bit of indigestion, as two productions of the lavish ballet compete for audiences.

For the first time locally, the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago will mount its version of The Nutcracker for two weeks starting November 27 at the Rosemont Theatre. Then beginning December 15 Chicago Tribune Charities will present its 30th anniversary edition of The Nutcracker at the Arie Crown Theatre. At stake are hundreds of thousands of dollars in ticket sales. Tribune Charities executives declined to comment, but Larry Long, artistic director of the Tribune’s Nutcracker, wasn’t pleased by the news. “I’m not surprised by what they are doing, however, because they are a company under stress financially,” Long said.

The Nutcracker has traditionally been a major source of revenue for dance troupes across the country. Families frequently return to see the ballet, practically assuring a healthy box-office take every year. Though other large cities, such as New York and Washington, D.C., have competing Nutcrackers during the holiday season, Tribune Charities has had a virtual monopoly in Chicago for nearly three decades.

Tribune Charities was already concerned about a threat to its lucrative franchise long before this month’s announcement. Prior to moving to Chicago, the Joffrey presented its Nutcracker to great acclaim in both Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Long says that in early 1995 Tribune Charities sought and received assurances from Joffrey executives that they would not mount a competing Nutcracker in Chicago.

At about the same time, Tribune Charities was discussing a plan with the Rosemont Theatre to move The Nutcracker to the suburbs for two weeks following its downtown run. Tim Orchard, a vice president for Ogden Entertainment, which books shows into the Rosemont, described the negotiations as “protracted,” and Tribune Charities eventually decided it wasn’t interested. Orchard says he then began considering other options. “Four ballet companies had approached us about doing a Nutcracker at the Rosement,” he says, adding that the Joffrey was not among them. But when Orchard was negotiating to present the Joffrey’s Billboards at the Rosemont, the conversation inevitably turned to The Nutcracker.

Once it entered into negotiations with the Rosemont, the Joffrey told Tribune Charities. “We have been in continuous contact with Tribune Charities advising them of developments,” says Joffrey board president David Kipper. But the Joffrey never sought a formal approval before inking the deal, because it appeared inevitable that another Nutcracker production would play at the Rosemont. “The constellations were changing,” says Kipper.

It remains to be seen exactly how these dueling ballets will affect each other. “I know it will have some effect on us,” says Long, who adds that Arie Crown business may also be hurt this year by construction on Lake Shore Drive near McCormick Place. But Joffrey executive director Arnold Breman believes there’s enough interest to support two productions. “We’ve done some research on this, and I think both will do very well,” he says. The Joffrey may also be able to tap into a new audience. According to Long, recent demographic studies have shown that the Tribune Nutcracker draws much of its audience from the city proper, as well as some from the western and southern suburbs. The Rosemont is close to the suburbs north and northwest of the city. As for prices, tickets to the Joffrey production will cost up to $49.50, while Tribune Charities is expected to charge around $37 for the best seats.

Long thinks there may be some benefits if the Joffrey’s Nutcracker winds up an annual event. “It will force us to be more creative in how we market our production,” he says. “It’s always a good thing when you have more dance of a high caliber.”

Altercation at the Altar

Norman Mark, a freelance TV reporter and critic covering arts and entertainment, was a confused guest at a performance last week of Tony ‘n’ Tony’s Wedding, a gay wedding spoof that opened earlier this month at Piper’s Alley. Like Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding, the play simulates a wedding reception, complete with food and drink. In mid-performance, Mark had a heated showdown with Tony ‘n’ Tony author Jay Leggett over a character played by female impersonator Honey West (actor Don Auxier). The character was named Grace Mark, which also happens to be the name of Mark’s wife.

Coproducer Jamie Baron says the first sign of trouble came when he received a phone call from Mark, who expressed concern that his wife was being lampooned in the production. Baron says he explained to Mark that Leggett had incorporated a number of references to Chicago Cubs players, including first baseman Mark Grace. Baron then invited Mark and his wife to come to the show, which they did.

Baron says he observed Norman and Grace Mark appearing to have a good time until about three-quarters of the way through the show. At that point Grace Mark got up and left. Baron says Mark then approached him, demanding to speak to someone about the Grace Mark character. Baron reminded Mark that they were in the middle of a show, but promised to hear him out as soon as possible. Afterward, Baron introduced Mark to Leggett, who says Mark started to poke him in the chest and threaten a lawsuit. Mark eventually calmed down after security was called in and Tony Tomaska, producer of Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding, intervened.

Since the row, Leggett has changed the character’s name to Grace Sheffield, and flowers were sent to Mark’s wife. Mark says he and his wife generally considered the play to be “terrific,” but adds that he felt compelled to defend his wife’s dignity. “How would you feel if you saw a caricature of you in a show that upset you?” Mark also says that both Baron and Leggett had been warned about the potential problem a week before Tony ‘n’ Tony’s Wedding opened. Leggett says he remembers the matter being broached in a production meeting, but “we certainly didn’t consider it to be a warning.” Leggett still maintains he never meant for his Grace Mark to be a parody of a real person. “I barely know who Norman Mark is, let alone his wife.”