Risky Business at the Royal-George

The city’s theater people are keeping close watch on the much-anticipated production of Other People’s Money at the Royal George Theatre. As most in the business readily concede, the 450-seat house desperately needs a hit to boost its image. “I don’t think that theater can afford another strike against it,” says one observer. The Royal George went dark last summer after owner Royal Faubion went into a well-publicized financial tailspin. It reopened in winter with a generally well-done production of The Cocktail Hour, which nonetheless closed after running only a little more than two months and making no money for producer Michael Frazier. Other People’s Money is the first work produced in the space by theatrical novice Robert Perkins, who now operates the Royal George complex, and his New York-based partner James Freydberg.

Perkins and Freydberg have made some daring choices in positioning and marketing their first production. The show opened here long after reaching certifiable hit status in New York, where it has been playing off-Broadway to standing-room-only houses for months with no major star to move tickets. After much deliberation, say Perkins and Freydberg, they chose to open in Chicago without a star either, opting instead for a troupe of seasoned local talent and one New York-based actress. That decision goes against the current conventional wisdom, at least as it’s defined by the city’s most successful and visible commercial producers, the veteran team of Michael Cullen, Sheila Henaghan, and Howard Platt, who say they have learned over the past decade that a star is essential for a commercial show in Chicago unless it has extraordinary pre-opening recognition. In marketing, Perkins and Freydberg have taken a more conventional tack. The New York Other People’s Money has profited from pulling in that city’s large business community; here, to stimulate word-of-mouth (which Perkins says has been “sensational”) the producers invited the CEOs of major Chicago companies to an Other People’s Money preview, and approximately 130 of them showed up. The producers also have solicited group business from most of the larger companies in town, according to Perkins Productions marketing chief Jennifer Nack. But the producers think hit status for their show will come from tapping into the broader base of the Chicago theatergoing market. “We believe the show has mass appeal,” says Nack. The producers have reserved a significant portion of their $450,000-plus capitalization for a major advertising campaign to promote the favorable notices and buttress word-of-mouth. Interestingly, they are prominently playing up a rave quote from WGN TV and radio critic Roy Leonard, who called Other People’s Money “the first legitimate hit of the new theatrical season,” a comment that has grave implications given the season’s end is rapidly approaching. Leonard’s audience, though large, tends to be dominated by an older, conservative crowd that favors comedies and musicals. If Leonard wants to catapult Other People’s Money into the winner’s circle, he may have to rave some more. In its first full week the play grossed $43,471 out of a potential $90,000 at capacity. “We’ve still got some work to do,” says Perkins.

Grape Receipts

Speaking of box office, it appears that Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Broadway production of The Grapes of Wrath hasn’t reached surefire hitdom either. For the week ending April 8, the production grossed $203,615 out of a potential $357,598, according to statistics compiled by Variety. The production reportedly needs to rake in a minimum of $200,000 a week to cover expenses. A Tony Award for best production on June 3 would help the show’s prospects, but now Grapes may get some serious competition for that prize from playwright Craig Lucas’s critically acclaimed new work Prelude to a Kiss, which is moving to Broadway with star Timothy Hutton just in time for Tony Awards consideration. Here in Chicago, ironically, Steppenwolf concludes its run of Lucas’s earlier Reckless this weekend.

Harvey Plotnick’s Lust for List

Contemporary Books president Harvey Plotnick may have decided to close down his firm’s New York office, but that doesn’t mean he’s through trying to get on the prestigious New York Times best-seller list. Plotnick is putting considerable advertising clout behind his current release Arnold, an unauthorized biography of actor-bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger by New York-based journalist Wendy Leigh. The book was published under Contemporary’s Congdon & Weed imprint. Last week Arnold was number 26 on the list of hardcover releases in the Waldenbooks chain’s current inventory. “It’s been moving up the list every week,” says Plotnick, who hopes that will translate into a berth on the Times bestseller chart. Meanwhile Plotnick is pleased about the prospects for Queen Bess, an unauthorized biography of fallen beauty queen Bess Myerson by New York Newsday reporter Jennifer Preston. Queen Bess was released at the same moment as another Myerson tome by well-known author Shana Alexander, but Preston’s book appears to be the early winner in the battle for the critics. “We’ve consistently gotten the better reviews,” says Plotnick, including a very positive notice from the Times Sunday book section.

Tinley Park’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Animals

As expected, Jam Productions is putting rock acts such as Kiss, David Bowie, and Fleetwood Mac on the debut season lineup at its new World Music Theatre, the mammoth outdoor music complex in south suburban Tinley Park. But the venue’s operators are trying to keep local residents from rising up in arms about the potential noise problem. Sources say the amphitheater’s stage has been situated so that the sound is directed into an adjoining Cook County forest preserve to help muffle the noise. Now all we have to worry about is the animals going deaf.

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