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Gambling on the Green

Less Room for Chamber Music

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Gambling on the Green

Most of the city's theater companies struggle to fill several hundred seats a week. So imagine what's facing Tim Orchard, vice president of marketing for Ogden Entertainment Services, the group that books and presents shows at the Rosemont Theatre. Orchard is trying to fill 75,000 high-priced seats for the critically acclaimed show Riverdance, which will start a three-week run October 24.

With a company of 80 singers, dancers, and musicians, Riverdance is an elaborate stage show tracing the history and legacy of Irish song and dance. The influence of Irish step dancing, for instance, is still felt in American tap. Riverdance grew out of a seven-minute show performed on television during the intermission of the 1994 Eurovision international song competition, which was held in Dublin. The short segment delighted audiences so much that TV producer Moya Doherty and her husband, director John McColgan, teamed up with composer Bill Whelan to turn their intermission act into a full-blown, $2.1 million theatrical event.

The result is a two-and-a-half-hour amalgam of high-energy music and dance presented with lush lighting and evocative backdrops. A huge hit in both Ireland and London, where it enjoyed long runs, Riverdance received scant attention in the U.S. until it had eight performances last March at New York's Radio City Music Hall. That engagement quickly sold out after it drew raves from the ordinarily jaded New York critics.

A native of Liverpool, Orchard initially saw Riverdance in London and was immediately convinced it would prove popular in Chicago, provided that he set the stage properly for the show's arrival. He decided to initially target Chicago's large Irish community. "I knew we would have to front-load a run here with the Irish audience to stimulate word of mouth," he says. But when Orchard and the show's producers got down to the final details, his plans hit a snag.

Since Riverdance is now scheduled to play next fall only in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Boston, the show's producers must quickly recoup the cost of bringing the production to the U.S., so they're demanding a stiff fee from their stateside hosts. Orchard soon realized he would be forced to commit to a three-week run rather than the one or two weeks he would have preferred. "I was completely confident Chicago's Irish community would support Riverdance," he says, "but I wasn't as confident the Irish community would support it for three weeks."

Unless Orchard can find an audience by October, Ogden Entertainment could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars on the engagement. A loss would be especially painful, Orchard says, because Ogden took a pass on another touring musical in order to gamble on Riverdance.

Orchard began selling tickets to groups of 20 or more several weeks ago. So far, 10,000 tickets have been sold to Irish social clubs and music and dance groups. Orchard now plans to tap into Irish communities in Saint Louis, Minneapolis, and other midwestern cities. He also hopes to unload another 10,000 tickets over the next several weeks on the Rosemont's season-ticket subscribers. Wisely, Orchard has put Riverdance in the subscription series alongside such familiar musicals as A Chorus Line and Annie and well-known performers, including Engelbert Humperdinck and Wayne Newton. But Orchard says customers interested in buying subscriptions have asked a lot of questions about Riverdance.

Orchard has opted to wait until September 9 before putting single tickets on sale for as much as $59.50 a pop, the highest price charged for any theatrical event at the Rosemont since it opened last October. He was afraid that any interest generated now would fall off during the slack summer season. Once September comes, Orchard expects he'll still have to sell more than half of the 75,000 tickets for Riverdance. He's counting on an aggressive ad campaign, publicity, and the buzz from a three-week stint at the Radio City Music Hall to help stimulate buying. Radio City has already sold about half of its 100,000 available tickets, according to Orchard, and the New York venue expects to be SRO by opening night.

Less Room for Chamber Music

Performing Arts Chicago is reducing the amount of classical music in its 1996-'97 schedule. The organization, once known as Chamber Music Chicago, plans instead to present more theatrical events. Performing Arts Chicago executive director Susan Lipman says that next season's program has been formulated to capitalize on the encouraging results of its just-concluded season. "We had a 32 percent increase in ticket sales over the previous season," says Lipman. In recent years the group has attracted larger crowds by presenting a variety of events, including performances by theater artists like Robert Lepage and Phillipe Genty and such dancers as Mark Morris. "Our emphasis next year will be on bringing in more of that audience." Lipman says she's booking fewer chamber music attractions because she's found that most of them cannot sustain a run. But theater attractions can stay for several days or even longer. The longer runs, says Lipman, allow for the all-important word of mouth to bring more customers to the box office. She says it's crucial for Performing Arts Chicago to develop a larger audience base over the next couple of years so the organization can move into the proposed 1,500-seat Chicago Music and Dance Theatre at Cityfront Center.

Meanwhile, sources on the Music and Dance Theatre front say the project continues to face major delays due to a standoff between the banks funding the $33 million building and Chicago Dock & Canal Trust, which sold the property to the theater's board at a bargain rate. Chicago Dock & Canal Trust wants first dibs on the property if the theater fails, but the banks are demanding rights to the property to protect their investment. Music and Dance Theatre general manager Joyce Moffatt did not return phone calls.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of "Riverdance" and Tim Orchard by Michael Le Poer Trench.

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