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Chicago Spotlight: January 2005

Auld Lang Syne is All Shook Up logo
Jennifer Gambatese in All Shook Up
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
The hell with the snow (we haven't had any to speak of... yet). The real news is that theater-loving Chicagoans have made it through another blizzard of holiday season shows. This year we had -- quite literally -- six Christmas Carols, five Nutcracker Suites, four Santaland Diaries, three Eight Reindeer Monologues, two "Dysfunctional" Christmas shows (from the Free Associates and Second City), and a partridge in a pear tree. We also had repeats of a few strictly local holiday treats, among them Fa-La-La This, Rudolph, the Red-Hosed Reindeer (transvestite), and the original (there now are many others around the country) The Christmas Schooner.

We also had a clutch of Broadway-bound musicals in their pre-New York tryouts. First up was Disney's On the Record, a loosely structured show built around the Disney songbook. It played the Auditorium Theatre for two weeks in December before moving on. Eventually it will find its way to the Big Apple, but it's in no hurry, enjoying a multi-city tour. Not so the other two, which began public performances the week before Christmas and continue through most of January. Both All Shook Up and Monty Python's Spamalot are making Chicago their one-and-only tryout town prior to Broadway.

All Shook Up is a book musical (by Joe DiPietro) utilizing songs made famous by Elvis Presley (although not written by him). It's not about Elvis, and Elvis isn't in it, but All Shook Up is set in a 1950's small town where a young Elvis-like rebel stirs things up. If it sounds a little bit like Grease and Footloose and Dirty Dancing combined, you wouldn't be too far off. But it also offers Shakespearean twists (really!). Deciding that most Elvis songs were about love, author DiPietro took a cue from Shakespeare's romantic comedies -- As You Like It, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night's Dream -- in which everyone falls in love with the wrong person. So that's how All Shook Up leaves its cast at the Act I curtain. If the show is a New York hit, it will make stars of young leads Jennifer Gambatese and Cheyenne Jackson. The best-known cast member may be Jonathan Hadary, the Tony-nominated Broadway and Off-Broadway veteran who plays Gambatese's father. All Shook Up is at the Cadillac Palace through January 23.

Monty Python's Spamalot is a musicalization of the successful Monty Python movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with Mike Nichols directing stars Hank Azaria, Tim Curry, and David Hyde-Pierce. It plays the Shubert Theatre through January 16.

It should be the last booking at the Shubert, as the venerable and historic house (originally the Majestic Theatre) goes dark for an $8 million overhaul that will result in a new, commercialized name, the LaSalle Bank Theatre, when it reopens next fall. The Shubert occupies the first six floors of the Majestic Building, a 20-story office tower that was Chicago's tallest building when built nearly 100 years ago. The Majestic is to be converted into a 130-room (approximately) boutique hotel under the master plan of its owners, the Nederlander Organization. Restoration of the theatre and development of the office tower will occur separately (hotel plans still are not finalized), but the total cost is estimated at $25 million.

The Shubert isn't the only theatrical bricks-and-mortar story in town. Tony Award-winning Victory Gardens Theater has broken ground on its redevelopment of the Biograph Theatre, an historic film house (dating from 1914) just two blocks from Victory Gardens' (VG) current home, which VG owns and will retain. VG will convert the Biograph into state-of-the-art mainstage and studio theaters. When all is done next fall, VG will own two theater complexes housing five stages. Cost of purchase and gut renovation of the Biograph (where The Lady in Red fingered Public Enemy No. One John Dillinger in 1933) is $9 million.

Finally, 91-year-old producer Anthony DeSantis (kind of the James Nederlander of Chicago) is investing about $5.5 million to construct a new, 540-seat proscenium house in Chicago's prestigious Watertower Place, a shopping, hotel, and residential complex on Michigan Avenue's Magnificent Mile. The Drury Lane Watertower Place is scheduled to open March 1. DeSantis operated an 1100-seat in-the-round theater at Watertower Place in the 1970's, but his faded-stars-in-faded-comedies artistic approach didn't appeal. He learned his lessons long ago at his various other operations, which have included Drury Lane Theatres in Evergreen Park, Lincolnshire (now the Marriott Theatre), at Chicago's McCormick Place convention center and in Oakbrook Terrace. A very successful real estate entrepreneur as well as producer, DeSantis continues to own and operate the 900-seat Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace Theatre and vast adjoining banquet and conference complex.

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