Showtime at the Apollo

Busby Berkeley couldn’t have dreamed up a better showbiz story. Nearly 500 guests had packed the Apollo Theater on Monday, July 26, to see the world premiere of the autobiographical one-man show Hinton Battle: Largely Live. Battle, a three-time Tony Award winner, had starred in Ragtime for most of its run at the Oriental Theatre, and during the previous month he and a creative team headed by producer Rob Kolson had been putting together Largely Live for a five-week run at the Apollo. But shortly before the seven o’clock curtain Kolson learned that one of the three musicians, drummer Terry Morrisette, hadn’t arrived. The show was to begin with eight bars of drums welcoming Battle to the stage, yet as Kolson would later discover, Morrisette had suffered a diabetic seizure and was lying unconscious in a hospital room.

Kolson was determined that the show would go on; running through the guest list in his head, he realized that his friend Scott Bennett had been invited to the opening. Bennett, who runs an advertising jingle company, plays drums, guitar, and several other instruments (recently he’s been performing as a percussionist and backup vocalist for Brian Wilson). He had just been seated when Kolson tapped him on the shoulder and explained his predicament. Soon Bennett was backstage warming up with a couple of drumsticks while music director Theodis Rodgers Jr. talked him through the first act. The second act featured a long medley of music from Battle’s Broadway shows, including a rhythmically tricky selection from Bob Fosse’s Dancin’. Bennett couldn’t read music, and Rodgers knew they’d need another drummer to get through the medley. As Bennett brazened his way through the first act, a call went out to Leo Murphy, a veteran player who lives near Lincoln Square. Murphy raced over to the theater in time for the second act. “He was wonderful,” says Rodgers. “He managed to play the Fosse segment cold.” There was no performance Tuesday night; by Wednesday, Kolson had learned of Morrisette’s illness and replaced him with drummer Dave Meyers.

Now that Largely Live has survived its opening-night drama, Kolson can return to more pedestrian concerns–like what to do with a weak show. The daily newspaper critics found the production sorely lacking (our own Jack Helbig weighs in with a long review this week in Section One), and Kolson concedes that hatching an entire show in five weeks might have been too ambitious. He and coproducers David Garfinkle, Ralph Lampkin, and Cheryl Sloane plan to add more music and more material about Battle’s lengthy career on Broadway. Kolson also indicated that a segment on Ragtime would probably be inserted before the show closes on August 29. “This was always intended to be a time we would use to develop the script and the production,” says Kolson. “This show is gonna change dramatically.”

Reopening the Case of the Black Orchid

Not many orchids could survive a blizzard, but on August 12 the Black Orchid will open in Piper’s Alley, following an aborted debut last New Year’s Eve. Owner and executive producer Marc Curtis reportedly spent $1 million to re-create the atmosphere of the luxurious Chicago supper clubs of the 1940s and ’50s, but he was unable to secure a liquor license in time for the scheduled opening on December 31, 1998. His bookings were moved to the Old Town School of Folk Music–not exactly the swank setting his ticketholders expected–and the last show was canceled after the massive snowstorm shut down the city.

Curtis was finally granted his license in June, and he’s revamped his original concept to include a full dinner. Chef Ami Sananes, formerly of Narcisse, has created a three-course meal that will be served from rolling carts; dishes include New Zealand lamb chops, seafood linguine, spinach-ricotta strudel, and vegetable couscous. The club, whose development costs are now closer to $1.5 million, will be open Thursday through Saturday, and for $55 to $75 customers will get the dinner plus entertainment by vocalist Celeste Johnson, conductor Doug Lawrence, and a 16-piece orchestra. A spokesperson for the club says Curtis plans to present one big show every month, but during the first month there will be three headliners: Ann Hampton Callaway, Diane Schuur, and Jennifer Holliday.

CDC Injuries May Prove Fatal

The Chicago Dance Coalition appears to be collapsing. As reported in this column June 25, Matthew Brockmeier of the Chicago Music Alliance was contracted to serve as the CDC’s executive director for six months. But Brockmeier now says the contract has been “terminated” because the CDC lacked the funds he needed to carry out his duties, principally the production of the CDC newsletter. CDC board members did not return phone calls, but one dance exec said that the coalition lost much of its charitable funding after executive director Gerard Seguin resigned last winter and the board seemed uncertain about where the CDC was headed. Brockmeier said the CDC’s 160 active members, both individuals and organizations, would be welcomed into the Chicago Music Alliance through the end of 1999 as nonvoting affiliate members, which would allow them to take advantage of the alliance’s newsletter and co-op advertising. He also said the CDC’s board members would continue to assess their options over the next several months, but it seems they’ve had plenty of time for that already.

Second Choice

Second City didn’t have much trouble scaring up an audience the weekend of July 16. Next door, the Pipers Alley multiplex had the only print in town of The Blair Witch Project, and many people who couldn’t get in headed to Second City instead. “We were getting about 100 people a night,” says producer Kelly Leonard. The next weekend the low-budget sleeper was being shown on three of the four screens at Pipers Alley, but people were still being turned away. Second City’s windfall is probably over, though: The Blair Witch Project opened wide last Friday, showing on 33 screens around Chicago.

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