When Previews through Sat 12/2: Thu-Sat 8 PM. Regular performances begin Wed 12/6
Where Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division
Bailiwick artistic director David Zak was recovering from heart surgery last summer when he got a phone call from LA-based entertainment exec Brian Nitzkin wondering if he’d like to do Jerry Springer. Not the TV show: the American premiere of the Richard Thomas-Stewart Lee musical. Zak knew only what he’d read about Jerry Springer–The Opera, which had created a sensation in England and was at one point scheduled for a pre-Broadway run at the San Francisco Orpheum, but he was immediately interested. He’d been using his enforced downtime to think strategically about Bailiwick’s future, and the chance to stage Springer in his 150-seat off-Loop house got his surgically enhanced ticker beating faster. A few days later, when he viewed a BBC presentation of the show that Nitzkin had sent him on DVD, he knew he had to have it. Never mind that the BBC airing generated 60,000 protest letters and a lawsuit for blasphemy.
Jerry Springer–The Opera sets trash talk to a quasi-operatic score (“poop your pants” is a typical lyric) and finds grand melodrama in Springer’s orchestrated sleaze. The production, which debuted at London’s National Theatre in April 2003, opens on a TV set, then moves to purgatory and hell, where a parade of program guests, including a diapered tenor and a cheating lover, reappear as religious figures like Jesus (who’s “a bit gay”) and God himself. After its run at the National the show moved to the West End, racked up a string of awards, and then toured Britain, protesters in tow. It was a blazing, notorious success, but funding for the American production, which was to open in 2005, fell through shortly after it was announced.
Enter Nitzkin, a Glenview native who joined the British entertainment firm Avalon a year ago. Nitzkin says he knew Avalon had helped develop Springer and owned the rights. Curious, he watched a DVD, then couldn’t believe it was languishing.
He asked his bosses if he could take a crack at getting it produced in the States; they said they wanted to get it to New York but were willing to consider regional licensing as a start. On August 2–his 28th birthday–Nitzkin was given the go-ahead. “It didn’t take me half a second to think of Chicago as the place to start,” he says. Not only because it’s hometown to both him and the Springer show, but because he knew the “theater climate” here could handle it. He dialed up every Chicago company that came to mind, including Bailiwick (where he’d participated in a Directors’ Fest a few years ago) and had meetings with 14 of them in late August. Of the three or four that were serious, he says, “Bailiwick gave it a really good sell.” Last week it became official: the opera will open May 14 in a non-Equity production directed by Zak.
The London show had a cast of 33 and an eight-piece orchestra; Bailiwick will stage the smaller touring version, with a cast of 25 and a six-piece band. Auditions will begin after Thanksgiving. The budget of at least $80,000 (equally split between production and promotion) is the biggest in Bailiwick’s 25-year history. The short time frame will rule out support from most foundations; Zak’s looking for a range of individual and corporate sponsors. A small business can get its name on the program and a pair of tickets for as little as $100, while a $25,000 gift could buy marquee space. Tickets are $25 to $40 and discounted advance passes are already on sale: two for $50, five for $100. The official closing is July 8, but Zak hopes it will extend into the fall season. “I don’t think it’s Wicked,” he says, “but I heard that Eric and Kathy were talking about it on the Mix this morning.” He expects opera fans and talk-show fans alike will be elbow to elbow for this Jerry Springer moment.
Hollywood Writ Small
Hollywood actress turned Indiana scriptwriter Dorothy Tristan says it was something in Playboy–not her marriage to director John Hancock–that gave her the idea for Bohemian Nights, her farce about a woman whose husband likes to watch. “Voyeurism struck me as such a silly perversion,” she says. “It’s a sad, impotent thing, but it has a lot of comic potential.” She wrote the screenplay about a decade ago, and Hancock says at one point everyone from a South African producer to Robert Evans was interested. But it never got made. When script coach Ken Clark suggested last year that the story would work as a theater piece, Tristan revised. With Hancock at the helm, Bohemian Nights sold out a three-week run last summer at Clark’s Acorn Theater in Three Oaks, Michigan; this week it begins previews at the Chopin, where its drawing power will be tested against more than moonlight and crickets.
Hancock, who grew up in Berwyn, had early success as a stage and film director, most notably with his 1973 movie version of Bang the Drum Slowly, starring a young Robert De Niro. But he’s never had more than a toe in the Hollywood mainstream, and about ten years ago the couple relocated from Los Angeles to his family’s fruit farm in La Porte. The Chicago version of Bohemian Nights, budgeted roughly at $50,000 for a 13-week run, is being produced by local roller-rink entrepreneurs Carey Westberg and his mother, Marge Quitter, who sought Hancock out after seeing his 2000 film, A Piece of Eden, also written by Tristan.
MidCoast Development, headed by Breadline Theatre founder Paul Kampf and David Lewis, former president of the defunct Actors’ Center of Chicago, is looking for 20 screenplays from midwestern writers over the next two years. Lewis says MidCoast, which also lists LA casting director Deborah Aquila as one of its principals, will act as a broker, getting scripts to people who can get them made. That’s what Aquila did for American Gothic, a dark drama written and directed by Kampf and produced by Lewis, for which they’re now seeking a distributor.
a The Chicago Film Office is teaming with Wits’ End Productions to sponsor one of the country’s first festivals of television comedy pilots, to be held at the Music Box in July. The juried event offers a $5,000 prize and exposure to judges with connections. Entry deadline is March 27; see chicagocomedytvpilotcompetition.com for more information. No parodies, adaptations, or reality shows, and if you live outside the Chicago area, don’t bother. v