Candlelight's Bust: Moe Money Less Than Expected/Steppenwolf's Broadway Scramble/Eliza Doolittle Meets Dr. Kildare/Gross Competence | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

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Candlelight's Bust: Moe Money Less Than Expected/Steppenwolf's Broadway Scramble/Eliza Doolittle Meets Dr. Kildare/Gross Competence

Bill Pullinsi of Candlelight Dinner Playhouse: Critic's said "Go" to Five Guys Named Moe, but business is slow.

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Candlelight's Bust: Moe Money Less Than Expected

Five Guys Named Moe, the revue celebrating the music of Louis Jordan, has proved a big box office bomb for the 580-seat Candlelight Dinner Playhouse, which isn't used to such disappointments. Last week Candlelight artistic director Bill Pullinsi seriously considered cutting his losses and closing the nation's first stock production of the show a month early, but he's decided to try to make it to June 20, the originally announced end of the run. Since the production opened on February 11 to unanimously positive reviews, attendance has been averaging about 60 percent of capacity with a top ticket of $45.95 (including dinner), according to Candlelight marketing chief Noreen Heron. That is well below the theater's usual average attendance of 90 percent or better. Tribune chief critic Richard Christiansen said the show was "far happier and funnier than the New York production" that opened a year ago on Broadway, but rave notices, as well as an advertising budget that is about 15 percent higher than usual, don't appear to have helped much at the box office.

The poor business is particularly painful for Candlelight executives because it comes immediately after the theater hit pay dirt with the Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit production of Phantom, which ran for 54 weeks at an average 98 percent of capacity. Heron believes the lackluster Moe grosses may be due in part to the audience's current preference for familiar material. "In times like these theatergoers apparently would rather pay to see a known property such as Grease than take a risk on something new," she says. A revival of Grease recently played to full houses at the Drury Lane in suburban Oakbrook Terrace.

Candlelight's problems to some degree reflect Five Guys Named Moe's cool reception on Broadway, where it stopped selling out shortly after its opening last year and has stayed well below capacity ever since. It could be that Candlelight's bad experience will repeat itself when a separately produced national tour hits the road in August.

Steppenwolf's Broadway Scramble

An optimistic Tribune headline writer suggested that the $1.4 million Broadway production of Steppenwolf Theatre Company's The Song of Jacob Zulu may run for a long time, but don't bet on it. With a slew of mixed to negative reviews dampening its premiere in the Big Apple last week, Zulu is sure to be a tough sell with a top ticket price of $50. Steppenwolf managing director Stephen Eich says, "We've got an uphill battle ahead of us." New York newspaper critics generally praised the musical contribution of the South African singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, but they almost all found fault with novice playwright Tug Yourgrau's leaden script. Daily News critic Howard Kissel said the play "has only one scene that can be called dramatic," while the New York Times's Frank Rich knocked its "utilitarian, pedagogical language."

If Steppenwolf hopes to recoup any of its investors' sizable stake in the production, it is going to have to work fast to build ticket sales and generate positive word of mouth. Zulu general manager Albert Poland said the show opened with an advance of only about $300,000, less than a week's gross of capacity at the 1,047-seat Plymouth Theatre. Fliers offering sharply discounted tickets have been distributed throughout New York's black communities, and students have been offered discounted tickets as well. Poland said Steppenwolf does not plan to tape an expensive television commercial (often the quickest way to boost ticket sales), but there will be plenty of print ads and a heavy airing of radio commercials. "We'll know in a couple of weeks what our chances are," says Eich, who found the Broadway arena a strange place at the moment. "There's a real feeling of desperation."

Eliza Doolittle Meets Dr. Kildare

The title makes clear reference to a "fair lady," but the print advertising for the upcoming engagement of the ever popular Lerner and Loewe musical My Fair Lady at the Chicago Theatre instead shamelessly hawks the appearance of former television heartthrob Richard Chamberlain, who has been cast somewhat against type as the crusty Professor Henry Higgins. Nowhere in the advertising is there even a passing reference to Melissa Errico, the actress playing cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle, or any other performer in the show for that matter. A spokesman said that Errico is a relative newcomer to the professional acting ranks and that the advertising reflects the billing arrangements made by the various actors' agents and the show's producers, Barry and Fran Weissler. The spokesman also noted that the Weisslers discovered early on in marketing the show that Chamberlain's name moves plenty of tickets.

Gross Competence

The Star Plaza Theatre in Merrillville, Indiana, recently lost out to the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, in Performance magazine's annual competition for Theatre of the Year. But no one can deny the 3,400-seat Star Plaza's ability to pull in hefty concert grosses. A total of 139 events in 1992 grossed $7.5 million, placing Star Plaza second nationwide among theaters with fewer than 5,000 seats, according to Performance's ranking of top-grossing theaters. That's up markedly from the theater's seventh-place showing the year before. Since coming on board several years ago, Star Plaza president and chief booker Charlie Blum (a former Nederlander Organization executive) has enhanced the venue's appeal by keeping ticket prices reasonably low, around $22 on average. Blum also is trying to pull in a younger audience by booking more rock acts to spice up the tried-and-true menu of country and easy-listening stars.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.

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