Critics Clip Wings; Artistic Director Takes Fall/Miss Saigon's Early Departure/Navy Pier Gets the New Theater...or Does It? | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

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Critics Clip Wings; Artistic Director Takes Fall/Miss Saigon's Early Departure/Navy Pier Gets the New Theater...or Does It?

Is the Goodman Theatre's production of Wings soaring or bombing in New York? Depends on what paper you read.

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Critics Clip Wings; Artistic Director Takes Fall

The Goodman Theatre production of the musical Wings, adapted from the Arthur Kopit play of the same name, bowled over almost every theater critic in Chicago when it premiered here last fall. But when it opened last Tuesday night at the New York Shakespeare Festival, the musical received a decidedly less enthusiastic welcome from three of New York's four major daily newspapers, including a mostly negative notice from the Times's Frank Rich. Though he liked the way the music worked in the production, Rich said Wings finally "sinks in the shopworn language, predictable narrative and mechanical uplift of a television disease-of-the-week movie." Thus clipped, Wings now appears unlikely to make a Broadway transfer.

And as sure as it was the Goodman that sent Wings into New York, big trouble blew up at the venerable Shakespeare Festival within 48 hours after its debut there. JoAnne Akalaitis, appointed artistic director in 1991 by the festival's now-deceased founder Joseph Papp, was abruptly fired last week by the theater's board of directors. George C. Wolfe, an artistic associate at the festival and director of the upcoming Broadway production of Tony Kushner's Angels in America, has replaced Akalaitis in the newly restored position of producer. In her last weeks in the festival's top position Akalaitis (known to be chummy with Goodman artistic director Robert Falls) had brought in not only Wings but also Goodman's production of Steve Tesich's On the Open Road, directed by Falls and roundly panned by Rich. That show closed last weekend at the Shakespeare Festival after a run of four weeks.

Whatever impact the two aforementioned Goodman shows may have had on sudden developments at the Shakespeare Festival, the administrative upheaval is its problem. One thing we can't seem to get here in the Windy City is accurate reporting from theater reporters and critics who wish to treat certain local productions and institutions with kid gloves. Tribune chief critic Richard Christiansen did everything humanly possible in his report to local readers to soften and skewer the reality of what befell Wings in New York. Even the story's headline--"Wings off to flying N.Y. start"--valiantly sought to mislead readers. After paragraph upon paragraph noting the self-congratulatory mood of Goodman staff and supporters, Christiansen finally was forced to deal--however briefly--with the negative reaction of some of the nation's most powerful theater critics.

If the veil of provinciality threatening to suffocate Chicago's theater industry is ever to be lifted, we must begin to look at developments in the business with a clear eye and deal in a straightforward fashion with the painful fact that critics elsewhere may not see things the way we do in Chicago. Goodman's Wings certainly benefited from strong performances and direction, but anyone who thought it was destined for Broadway success was indulging in wishful thinking. Whatever modest course it now takes, Wings will live out its life and perhaps even move many of those who see it. But it's high time in Chicago to put Wings behind us and get on with the crucial business of developing new works that will help this city regain its once deserved reputation as a world-class theater center.

Miss Saigon's Early Departure

Producer Cameron Mackintosh decided to pull Miss Saigon out of the Auditorium Theatre on July 3, a good two months earlier than originally planned. Mackintosh, one of the savviest theater businessmen around, cleverly pegged the big-budget musical's early-closure announcement to an opportunity to play Boston and to his extreme displeasure with the city's decision, effective January 1, to raise the entertainment tax to 6 percent from 4 percent at theaters with more than 750 seats. While such a tax increase may mean higher prices for ticket buyers in the future, for now it is coming out of Mackintosh's profits. What undoubtedly concerned Mackintosh just as much as the tax was whether the show could remain at or near sellout for another six months in Chicago. Despite an aggressive advertising campaign, Miss Saigon has not been selling out consistently since shortly after Christmas. The show has the potential to rake in as much as $850,000 a week at capacity, but on a couple of occasions the weekly box office take has dipped well below $700,000. Mackintosh needs to pull in more than $500,000 a week just to cover the production's weekly operating costs. Under the circumstances Mackintosh is wise to pull out early and move to a fresh town where the show is more likely to sustain SRO status without the higher entertainment tax.

Navy Pier Gets the New Theater...or Does It?

It ain't over till it's over: after more than two years of deliberations the Music and Dance Advisory Committee earlier this week chose the site for a new midsize theater even while it warned that the decision still might not be final. At last Monday's meeting the committee, working on behalf of nine dance and music groups, voted in favor of Navy Pier over Cityfront Center. At the same time it also announced its intention to consider a last-minute request from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to build the 1,200- to 1,500-seat theater inside a proposed $100-million-plus addition to Orchestra Hall. The CSO plan of course would potentially eliminate the need to raise funds for two different building projects, but informed sources doubt the committee will find enough merit in the proposal to cancel the Navy Pier plan.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lerman.

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