Little Voice Little Appreciated

Broadway’s $1.4 million production of Steppenwolf Theatre’s The Rise and Fall of Little Voice opened May 1 to a resounding cacophony of critical pans. One week later it closed with a thud, having lost all but $150,000 of its original capital. The swift failure stunned its New York producers and many within Steppenwolf; the company wasn’t involved financially, but in the past four years it’s sent three productions to Broadway and seen all of them lose money. More important than money, though, is the fact that Little Voice’s ugly demise could signal the end of an era in which even New York viewed the Windy City as an important theater town.

Last week the bruised administration at Steppenwolf, which started the buzz about Chicago theater in the early 1980s with its productions of True West and Balm in Gilead, wasn’t yet prepared to render an absolute verdict on whether the city’s theatrical star had fallen. In any event, Steppenwolf managing director Stephen Eich indicated, it will probably be a long time before Steppenwolf ventures back onto Broadway. “I don’t think we need to go through that anymore.”

Between the lines of some of the key reviews of Little Voice was little lingering regard for the acting style that first put Chicago on the map. Howard Kissel, writing in the New York Daily News, referred to Steppenwolf as “pioneers in Scratch ‘n’ Sniff Theater,” while New York magazine’s John Simon called the acting in Little Voice “fairly ordinary.” But surely the most scathing indictment of all came from New York Times chief drama critic David Richards, who last winter took over Frank Rich’s powerful post. The production, Richards said, “accentuate[d] everything that is vociferous and crude about [Jim Cartwright’s play].” He went on to say: “It represents a curious throwback to the early days of Steppenwolf when the brawling, furniture-breaking, over-the-top vigor of its company members had people talking for a while of a Chicago school of acting.”

Richards’s pan ensured that the plug would be pulled on Little Voice sooner rather than later. Indeed, the hardworking cast heard the heartbreaking announcement from general manager and coproducer Leonard Soloway in the basement of the Neil Simon Theatre just a half hour before their May 2 performance. “I want you all to witness my suicide,” said Soloway, only half jokingly, as he announced that the show would close at the end of the week. The sudden death knell may have been a surprise to most of the cast, but not to Hynden Walch, who played the title character; her aggressive and anxious agent had called one of the show’s producers earlier in the day and gotten the news.

Soloway says he and his coproducers had no choice about closing the show so quickly given its severe financial hemorrhaging. It lost more than $250,000 during two weeks of previews, when box-office grosses were only around $50,000 a week out of a potential $400,000 at capacity. According to Soloway, the day after the show opened ticket sales plummeted from around $10,000 a day to about $800; that final week the show wound up losing another $100,000. Some observers believe the New York producers, who also included the powerful Nederlander Organization, had too many of their hopes riding on the play’s British pedigree coupled with the power of the Steppenwolf “magic.”

Cast members reacted to the negative critical reception and the early closing with a mixture of resignation and pain. Ensemble member Rondi Reed refused to read any of the reviews even though she knew she’d hear about them anyway. For both Reed and Walch, the most agonizing part of performing the final week was watching audiences rise to their feet to applaud at the end of the evening and knowing the show still was going to close. Now that it has, Reed plans on heading back to Chicago or out to Los Angeles, but Walch is staying in New York City. She’s just the latest in a long line of Chicago acting talent to bid good-bye to the scene. “This show brought me here, so I’m gonna see what happens.” She has been busy “auditioning her head off” and already has landed a small role in an independent feature film being shot in upstate New York this summer. Walch says the Little Voice experience has pretty much squelched any immediate yearning to work in the theater. “I wouldn’t mind a little space right now,” she adds.

The View From New York

In its own way, the most recent issue of Theater Week, a gossipy New York-based weekly covering the theater industry, speaks volumes about the state of Chicago theater. Dubbed “the Chicago issue,” the May 16 edition is full of uninspired stories. The issue’s cover is graced with an ill-timed photo of Hynden Walch in The Rise and Fall of Little Voice; inside is a story about Walch and her departure from Chicago. Two other feature stories look at the in-house directors at the Goodman Theatre and give a brief overview of Bailiwick Repertory, which claims to have found success through diversifying its programming. One of the magazine’s regular columns also takes note of how Chicago-based director Mary Zimmerman was terrified when audiences started walking out on her New York production of Arabian Nights, a show almost universally embraced by critics hereabouts.

Blackman’s Victory

Chicago’s annual round of spring art fairs has ended, and Tom Blackman’s New Pier Show now appears firmly established as the winner. Sales at the New Pier Show varied a good deal, but participating dealers unanimously praised Blackman’s management of the fair, which took place in a much larger and more attractively laid-out tent than last year. Nevertheless a tent is a tent, and the dealers also agreed that they’ll be happy to return to Navy Pier in 1995, when the exhibition halls now under construction will be completed. John Wilson’s 15th anniversary Chicago International Art Exposition went on as planned in the rotunda at Navy Pier, but it featured far fewer dealers, and at least one critic complained about the low quality of much of the art. Many local dealers, still smarting from what they consider Wilson’s arrogant treatment of them in years past, refused even to visit Art Expo. But Wilson, a determined fighter, has already announced that he’s planning to hold a 16th Art Expo, at a location yet to be determined.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Carol Rosegg–Martha Swope Associates.