Performing Arts Center: Will CSO Say No?

The plan to build a $300 million performing arts center to house the Lyric Opera and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra could be derailed at an April 4 meeting of the CSO board. According to one influential board member, some orchestra trustees have expressed significant reservations about the costly project despite executive director Henry Fogel’s repeated endorsement of the plan. The CSO board’s reaction thus far stands in marked contrast to that of the Lyric board. Perhaps responding to the vocal urging of general director Ardis Krainik, Lyric trustees readily backed the project last month and gave their blessing for the blue-ribbon committee studying its feasibility to begin seeking firm financial pledges.

At last month’s CSO board meeting, “There was a great deal of discussion about the project,” says one source familiar with the proceedings. No vote on the plan was taken, and CSO staffers were ordered to collect additional data. A CSO board source gave the project a one in five chance of approval. Some CSO staffers who last summer seemed gung ho about the center have recently toned their enthusiasm down a notch or two, perhaps in anticipation of a possible no vote from the board. Now orchestra executives are quick to point out that the Lyric Opera situation “is different” from that at CSO, a reference to the fact that the orchestra owns its building (Lyric does not) and that Orchestra Hall could be modified to accommodate the orchestra’s future needs. CSO staffers and board members appear to have discovered a deeper sentimental attachment to their home than was previously apparent, as well as increasing trepidation about exactly what the center will be like when it’s completed ten years down the road.

Late last week Fogel expressed confidence that the CSO board would eventually come out in favor of the center after considering the additional information. “I think they will conclude the project is worthwhile,” he said. But should the vote go against the project, the crusade to build a performing arts center almost certainly would end. “At that point, the work of the blue-ribbon committee would be concluded,” says committee spokesman Bob Lauer, adding “the whole plan was based on getting the endorsement of both boards of directors.”

Touchstone Theatre: Following in Steppenwolf’s Footsteps?

Touchstone Theatre, founded in 1985 in north-suburban Lake Forest by artistic director Ina Marlowe, is set to sign a ten-year lease on the former home base of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 2851 N. Halsted. After starting out in a tiny theater in a Lake Forest school, Touchstone moved two seasons ago to the Theatre Building in an effort to establish a Chicago audience and funding base. Marlowe hopes the move to the 211-seat Steppenwolf space, which includes offices, will further enhance Touchstone’s identity. The company is in the process of raising $200,000 to finance the move, with $50,000 already pledged. Marlowe plans to open the debut five-play season next fall with A Moon for the Misbegotten and close the first year with Tennessee Williams’s touching but seldom-produced Summer and Smoke.

Young Playwright Goes Hollywood

Chicago is losing one of its promising young playwrights, at least temporarily. Rick Cleveland, whose work has been seen on the stages of Victory Gardens and American Blues Theatre, among others, is heading to Hollywood next month. “I’m going to try and find work,” says the 31-year-old Cleveland, who wants to explore film and television possibilities. “Being a Chicago playwright doesn’t pay the bills, and writing a play is a full-time job.” Though other Chicago-based playwrights have said they disagree, Cleveland believes there is diminishing support for new plays in the Chicago theater industry and that the whole scene has changed markedly over the last several years. “I don’t think we have a theater movement here anymore because the money has gotten too tight,” he says. Cleveland maintains his departure isn’t news in the theater industry; it’s only part of a larger exodus he believes may be coming in the months and years ahead. “I think every Chicago playwright, actor, and director eventually will have to head out of town if they are worried about making any kind of a living in this business.”

Madama Butterfly Flies at COT

It’s a go for Madama Butterfly at Chicago Opera Theater. The financially strapped opera company raised $438,000 of the hoped-for $600,000 by March 15. COT general manager Mark Tiarks said the funds will allow the company to mount the Puccini opera while seeking another $150,000 by April 12. If that additional sum isn’t forthcoming, COT will reconsider presenting its final work of the season, Postcard From Morocco.

Return of Les Miz

On Sunday the first national touring company of Les Miserables opens a return engagement that Auditorium Theatre executives expect to last at least through summer. Whenever it comes, the end of the Auditorium run will mark the final shutdown of Les Miz’s first national tour. An energetic Richard Jay-Alexander, head of the New York offices of producer Cameron Mackintosh, is here this week to oversee previews and the addition of nine new cast members. Meanwhile, Mackintosh readies Miss Saigon for the start of previews on Broadway this weekend. Jay Alexander said Mackintosh would not decide Miss Saigon’s touring schedule till the show opens on Broadway April 11. The Auditorium remains a strong contender to nab the tour debut of the through-sung Vietnam musical, which is based loosely on Madama Butterfly.

He’s in With the Thin Crowd

Ramsey’s on Huron, the restaurant/nightclub that was to have opened next month in the space formerly occupied by the restaurant Alexander’s and nightclub Crystal, won’t be opening as planned. Pianist Ramsey Lewis and the investor consortium backing the project could not raise the capital needed to renovate and reopen the space. This is believed to be Lewis’s second unsuccessful attempt at opening a Chicago nightclub.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.