Light Opera Works seems more determined than ever to trade in its musty operettas for Broadway razzle-dazzle. After dumping Philip Kraus as artistic director in February, the board of directors for the Evanston-based company has replaced him with Lara Teeter, a confirmed song-and-dance man whose Broadway performance in On Your Toes earned him a Tony Award nomination in 1983. A native of Oklahoma, Teeter spent six years teaching musical theater at California State University, Fullerton (he choreographed the Cal State revival of Hair, which the musical's original Broadway producer, Michael Butler, brought to the Athenaeum Theatre three summers ago). He's also directed and choreographed productions at the Dayton Opera and a number of light opera companies on the west coast. In 1996 he returned to New York to perform again, and recently he played the Scarecrow in the touring version of The Wizard of Oz, alongside Mickey Rooney and Eartha Kitt. This will be his first time helming a nonprofit arts organization, with its tight budgets and fund-raising pressures. But Bridget McDonough, general manager of LOW, says the board chose Teeter from among 80 applicants, citing his "broad background in directing and choreographing, his connections in the business, and his personality."
Kraus, who struggled to fulfill the company's original mission of preserving the operetta, says the board's selection speaks volumes about what's to come. "The focus of the company is going to change," he says, "and I wouldn't be surprised if the company's name did too." Kraus says he was pressured to add musical comedy to the company's schedule because the audience for operetta was too small, but he believed that LOW was unique in the Chicago area and should stay that way. Apparently McDonough and the board were bent on replacing Kraus with someone who knows the Broadway musical: according to Teeter, the job was originally presented to him as a part-time position. "I was about to accept another teaching job at Wright State University," he explains, "and I wasn't interested in anything part-time." Teeter managed to talk LOW into giving him a full-time position with a commensurate salary boost. McDonough won't disclose how much she's paying Teeter, saying only, "I'm paying him what he's worth for a full-time job."
McDonough denies that Teeter's appointment signals a drastic shift in programming, though she does concede that LOW will be "more broadly defining" light opera. Teeter would like to introduce concert stagings of musicals into the lineup; a similar series in New York City spawned the revival of Chicago that's played twice at the Shubert Theatre. He plans to spend some time researching operettas and vintage musicals like the Gershwins' Lady Be Good, Rodgers and Hart's A Connecticut Yankee, and Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Jule Styne's Fade Out--Fade In. He's also considering a holiday production, possibly Leslie Bricusse's Scrooge, a brassy musical he staged at the Yorba Linda Light Opera in California. At first Teeter will be programming the schedule under McDonough's supervision, and the company's $800,000 budget may have to increase substantially to accommodate some of Teeter's ideas. But productions like Jacques Offenbach's La belle Helene may be a thing of the past: McDonough admits that one show under consideration for the 2000 season is Fiddler on the Roof.
Tough Nut to Crack
Despite its disastrous engagement last year, The Harlem Nutcracker will return to the Chicago Theatre for eight performances December 7 through 12. The show, set to a Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn arrangement of Tchaikovsky's ballet, was a late booking last year, and without a concerted marketing effort it barely filled a third of its seats. But according to Mike Rilley, manager of the Chicago, attendance grew with each performance--a sign that the show had good word of mouth--and the Chicago Association for the Performing Arts, which books the theater, decided to take a gamble on a return engagement.
"We just have to do a better job of building up interest in the show," explains Doug Kridler, president of CAPA. Earlier this week the theater hosted a reception featuring Donald Byrd, the ballet's choreographer; Lois Weisberg, city commissioner for cultural affairs; and Homer Bryant, founder of the Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center, which will provide 21 dancers for the production. The show will also feature a Chicago choir yet to be chosen and celebrity walk-ons in the first act. Still, The Harlem Nutcracker will have some stiff competition in the Loop, including Aida at the Palace, A Christmas Carol at the Goodman, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Shubert, not to mention the Joffrey Ballet's The Nutcracker at the Auditorium.
Fred Solari has managed to squeeze two different productions and two entirely different performance stages into one 1,500-square-foot space at the Athenaeum Theatre. Starting this week, Ulysses Theatre Company will present its critically acclaimed production of Larry Kramer's AIDS drama The Normal Heart in repertory with the Athenaeum and Porchlight Theatre Company's own long-running revival of William Finn and James Lapine's pop opera Falsettos, about a man who leaves his wife and son for his male lover. "We felt the two shows had similar themes and would run well together," explains Solari. But The Normal Heart couldn't be presented on the Falsettos set, so a new stage was erected in another corner of the same room. On the nights when Falsettos isn't playing a curtain will be opened to reveal the stage for The Normal Heart, and about half of the room's 75 movable seats will be shifted to face the new stage.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.