Roasted Peanuts

Local producer Michael Leavitt faces an uphill battle to turn America’s favorite loser into a winner on Broadway. Last November the Fox Theatricals producer premiered a revival of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, where it won mostly positive reviews. The show then embarked on a brief tour that would eventually take it to the Ambassador Theatre in New York, but after it sustained a huge financial loss in Detroit, coproducer Columbia Artists Management, Inc., pulled out. Leavitt canceled a Boston engagement to overhaul the show for its New York opening, and the producers minimized their advertising expenses, planning a promotional blitz to begin after the show had collected some blurbs from New York critics. But last Thursday You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown opened to decidedly mixed reviews: New Jersey’s Star-Ledger liked it, and USA Today awarded it three out of four stars, but the New York Daily News wasn’t impressed. Worst of all, the highly influential New York Times panned the show: chief critic Ben Brantley labeled it a “mild-mannered, sticky evening of skits and songs,” dismissing its pumped-up production numbers and “hard-sell” performances.

The original production, which premiered off Broadway in 1967, drew much of its charm from its minimal staging and simple drums-and-piano accompaniment.

But Leavitt’s version uses full scenery and a small band, and apparently the New York revision, which charges a top ticket of $75, is even bigger and brassier. Speaking from his Chicago office shortly before the show opened, Leavitt said the opening production number had been beefed up with new segments, a number in the middle of the first act had been moved to the end of the act, and a new one had been inserted in its place. But now that the show has a pan from the Times hanging around its neck, Leavitt and coproducers Jerry Frankel, Gene Persson, and Arthur Whitelaw will probably have to crank up the volume even more with a big marketing campaign. Leavitt is targeting the same family audience that’s flocked to Broadway productions of The Lion King and The Sound of Music, yet he hasn’t generated much interest among ticket buyers. According to Leavitt, advance sales were $750,000, and on Broadway that’s–you’ll pardon the expression–peanuts.

Leavitt sounded uncertain about the show’s future, but he’s been down this road before. Jekyll & Hyde, another musical he developed in regional theaters, opened on Broadway in spring 1997 and was also slammed by the Times. But through word of mouth the show established a cult following, and buoyed by savvy PR–including an ad campaign with decidedly sexual overtones–it survived long enough to find its audience. At the very least You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown offers Anthony Rapp (Rent) in the title role and Kristin Chenoweth giving what even Brantley singled out as a star-making performance in the newly created role of Sally Brown. In any case, Leavitt is already hard at work on his next Broadway-bound musical, a staging of the 1967 film Thoroughly Modern Millie; he says the show is “in great shape” after two successful workshop readings in New York. Back in Chicago, Fox Theatricals is still renovating the Palace Theatre in the old Bismarck Hotel (now the Allegro) for a fall opening, and while they have yet to announce what show will open the theater, it could be Aida. The new musical by Walt Disney Theatricals, with a score by Tim Rice and Elton John, ran into trouble during its pre-Broadway tryout in Atlanta last fall, and the Goodman’s Robert Falls has been hired to direct the show’s next incarnation.

Wanted: New Dance Partner

For the third time in as many years the Chicago Dance Coalition is looking for an executive director. Gerard Seguin, who held the post for a year, resigned February 1, citing “personal reasons.” CDC board member Tony Karman says Seguin’s departure was entirely unexpected, and while Seguin could not be reached for comment, one source familiar with developments says the former director had been visiting his ailing mother in Canada when he decided to resign. During his brief tenure with the CDC, Seguin revamped its newsletter and moved its Ruth Page Awards ceremony from a hotel ballroom to the Athenaeum Theatre, where it helped kick off the annual Dance Chicago festival. According to another source, the coalition chose Seguin from a very short list of qualified applicants, and this time around their task could be even tougher, given the rapid turnover in the position.

Political Stage

Plans for the Music and Dance Theater Chicago’s new 1,500-seat theater have been delayed yet again. Last month the Chicago Plan Commission was scheduled to vote on whether the new venue should be incorporated into Lakefront Millennium Park, planned for the northwest corner of Grant Park. But now that decision has been pushed back to March, well after Mayor Daley’s probable reelection on February 23. Ed Uhlir, director of the project, insists that the commission is waiting for MADTC to submit completed architectural renderings and a digital image of the proposed venue. But Daley’s costly North Loop theater district has given mayoral candidate Bobby Rush an issue in the lopsided mayor’s race: Livent Inc., owner of the Oriental Theatre, is near collapse, and the Chicago Theatre is searching mostly in vain for new shows. Postponing the MADTC vote will serve the mayor well, keeping all the drama out of the papers and onstage where it belongs.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Michael Leavitt photo by Nathan Mandell/ two uncredited theatrical stills.