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Musicals Redux

Main Stem musical hits (and flops) get a second wind from the Windy City. logo

Several of Chicago's resident theaters have staked their summer box office prospects on second and even third looks at recent Broadway musicals, regardless of whether audiences and critics in New York gave the works a rousing send-off from their first outing. Some shows do not spark enough commercial interest for a national tour to be considered--yet that, it seems, spells opportunity for smaller theaters who think they know better than Broadway moguls. In the competitive Chicago market, there's not only a hunger to be the first group in the Midwest to revive such Broadway attractions as Side Show, but a pervasive sense that a second look can be a better look.

"Because our theater is so small we cannot help but put the focus on people," says Kevin Belle, the young director of The Life, the so-called prostitute musical by composer Cy Coleman, running at the Circle Theatre in west-suburban Forest Park. "On Broadway it did not seem so personal because it was all about the sets. Our audiences have the advantage of seeing the show taking place right up against them," Belle says.

His feelings are seconded by the Northlight Theatre, which is presenting Side Show, Bill Russell and Henry Krieger's musical chronicle of the rise to fame of Daisy and Violent Hilton, two conjoined twins who rose from a sideshow attraction to become stars of the vaudeville circuit.

Northlight, one of Chicago's major non-profit theaters, is a far larger outfit than Circle. And this is also not the first post-Broadway production of the show that features not only direction by Joe Leonardo, artistic director of NETworks, but also a performance by Kristen Behrendt, who was the standby for Violet in the Broadway production.

Still, very few theaters have dared to produce Side Show since it's 1997-98 Broadway run. And, to be sure, the Northlight version is also quite different from the Broadway original.

For a start, the show has been reconfigured for a thrust theater that seats only about 350 people. That allows for a palpable sense of immediacy when, in the opening numbers, the cast tells the members of the audience to "Come Look at the Freaks." In Northlight's theater at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, you don't have much choice but to stare directly in a performer's face.

"The energy is more intense at Northlight," says Behrendt, now the first-rank Violet. "You can really feel what's going on in the theater here."

"This is a show about a pair of sisters with a deep bond," says Susan McMonagle, who plays Daisy Hilton. "It adds something to have real chemistry." Interestingly, McMonagle never saw Side Show in New York, so by necessity comes to the material from a completely fresh perspective.

Northlight managing director Richard Friedman openly admits that part of the appeal of Side Show is voyeuristic. And since people are naturally interested in how the Hilton twins went to the bathroom or made love--or even how they managed to roll over in bed--it works far better to serve up the leads in a setting where their attachment--physical and otherwise--is more obvious and immediate.

"The twins realize," Friedman says, "that no one will ever be as close to them as their sister. It's very moving."

Longtime fans of the Chicago theater know that this is all part of a proud local tradition--looking again at fare that Broadway passed over. For example, The Candlelight Dinner Playhouse turned Rags into a local hit nearly a generation ago, and Circle Theatre revived the show as well in the mid-'90s.

This season, the tiny Porchlight Theatre (in association with the Athenaeum Theatre) scored a huge hit with a revival of Merrily We Roll Along, the 1981 Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical. Even though the theater was tiny and the budget limited, many critics regarded the show as one of the best local productions of the year (or, in some cases, any year).

Thanks to the affection of its artistic director, Michael Weber, for commercial Broadway fare, the Theatre at the Center in Munster, Indiana has proved to be an affectionate sponsor of oft-maligned Gotham attractions. This season, Weber's theater will offer the Chicago premiere of Ken Ludwig's Moon Over Buffalo and the recent Neil Simon play, Proposals.

As a general rule in the past, Weber has never worried about whether or not the musical in question comes with an ironclad guarantee. Rather than trot out the same old revivals you can see anywhere else, Weber is more interested in giving his audiences material that's fresh--to them, at least.

"We make an effort," says the genial Weber, "to find things that our audiences have not seen before."

Chicago audiences, of course, always enjoy seeing stuff before New York as often as possible.

Walt Disney Theatricals' current New York incarnation of Aida was seen in Chicago at the Cadillac Palace before trying its hand in Gotham City. And The Rhythm Club, a new musical that's headed for Broadway, will be trying out here this fall at the Oriental Theatre. Set in the '30s in Hamburg, Germany, The Rhythm Club deals with the world of underground swing clubs and has three young musicians at the heart of its dance-oriented story.

But if there's a serious Broadway musical that does not reach an audience in New York, there's a good chance that it will find a smaller, kinder home in a little Chicago theater where you can see the characters sweat.

"It's tremendously exciting to get the chance to be the first people to do a musical that was just on Broadway," Belle says. "They gave us the rights before they had even printed up the libretto."

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