Splendor on the Grass

The appointment of Kevin Cole to head up the new musical theater program at the Ravinia Festival’s Steans Institute for Young Artists was big news last year–announced early and with fanfare. Selection of his successor this year was played a lot more pianissimo. Chicago Shakespeare Theater associate artistic director Gary Griffin, fresh from the successes of Pacific Overtures and Court Theatre’s My Fair Lady, will fill the job, which has shrunk over the winter. Ravinia president Welz Kauffman snagged the hot director in March, while My Fair Lady was still in rehearsal. Working with a cast of local actors as well as Steans Institute students and a yet-to-be-named music director, Griffin will craft and direct compact versions of two very different Rodgers and Hart musicals: Pal Joey and The Boys From Syracuse. They’ll be combined into a one-hour performance that will follow the CSO’s July 28 “Salute to Rodgers and Hammerstein” on the main stage.

Meanwhile, though this is “the year of the voice” at Ravinia, the festival’s most consistent voice, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus, won’t be there. The world-class, union-rate ensemble was snubbed this season in favor of groups like the Apollo Chorus, the Saint Charles Singers, and the Trinity United Church of Christ Choir. A Ravinia spokesman said this was done to bring in voices we might not otherwise hear, and not, as some would have it, as a blatant sacrifice of quality to reduce costs. The 24 members of the CSO Chorus who make up the Chicago Symphony Singers, a new chamber group, will appear–in a bonus concert July 27, directed by Duain Wolfe and Griffin. They’ll repeat a staged program of music with Shakespearean lyrics they performed last season at Orchestra Hall. It’ll follow the “Romeo and Juliet Project” in the pavilion, a combination of Shakespeare’s play and various music it’s inspired concocted by Kauffman and actor-director John de Lancie, who had legions of sprites skipping down the paths for last year’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Attendance last year, Kauffman’s first as CEO, passed the 600,000 mark for the first time, and the festival reported a less-than-expected deficit of $45,000 (covered by its endowment fund) on a budget of nearly $18 million. Earned income was nearly $10 million, donations just under $8 million, and both were up from 2000. It was the first year for a policy that closes the park when ticket sales reach a certain (closely guarded) number, which they did four times–for Lyle Lovett, the BoDeans, Tony Bennett, and the Buena Vista Social Club. Ravinia was one of the first Chicago arts organizations to offer electronic ticketing (in ’96), and a quarter of last year’s sales were made on-line. This season the Internet’s box-office share is expected to rise to 30 percent.

Though decibel levels are a constraint in its residential neighborhood, Kauffman wants to “skew younger” with the festival’s pop concerts. “We won’t see the effect of it this year,” he says (an attempt to book Norah Jones didn’t work out), but Bonnie Raitt–convinced to come after her dad, Broadway singer John Raitt, signed on for the Rodgers and Hammerstein tribute–will make her Ravinia debut, as will the B-52s and Blues Traveler. Kauffman’s wish list for the future includes Sting, Sade, Bjork, Radiohead, and Marc Anthony, any of whom could sell the lawn out in a tornado. The discount ticket books that got you through the gate after the lawn closed last season won’t work for that purpose anymore, but once in, we’re told, there won’t be any startling changes in ambience–at least nothing on the level of those mechanized plastic toilet seat sleeves, which would chug into place like so many trains pulling into Ravinia station. They disappeared unannounced last year, though their little red buttons remained, batons without their orchestras.

Puppets Pooped?

The third annual Chicago International Festival of Puppet Theater, running June 12-23, is looking more than a little anemic. Pittsburgh-based Squonk Opera has vanished from the schedule, their contract canceled. Also missing: Mickle Maher’s Master Stitchum and the Moon and Blair Thomas and Michael Zerang’s 108 Ways to Nirvana, both pulled a month ago. That leaves a five-day run of the Saigon Water Puppet Theatre (a hit when it was here two years ago) at Pritzker Park and a film fest (adult and children’s editions, with a family workshop) at the Gene Siskel Film Center, curated by School of the Art Institute professor Chris Sullivan. It’s a sharp contrast with last year’s robust schedule, which was bolstered by the city’s simultaneous Puppetropolis festival. Susan Lipman of Performing Arts Chicago, which produces the festival (SAIC is a cosponsor), says a drop in funding is responsible. “We didn’t get as much money as we had hoped and just can’t take a financial risk now,” she says. “We’re asking ourselves whether we should do an annual festival or just do it [every other year] when the city does.” The festival grew out of a puppetry institute conducted by Thomas at SAIC, which was also canceled this year. “Disappointing,” he says, but the cutbacks won’t put him out of business. Come July, his one-man-band puppet show St. James’ Infirmary, with rod marionette, moving scroll, banjo, and trombone, will open on State Street.

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