Steppenwolf's New Business Boss/It's a Fizzle: New Simon PLay Coming to Chicago | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

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Steppenwolf's New Business Boss/It's a Fizzle: New Simon PLay Coming to Chicago

The new top dog at Steppenwolf is managing director Michael Gennaro, who comes with an impressive arts/showbiz pedigree.


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Steppenwolf's New Business Boss

The Steppenwolf Theatre Company is getting a true showbiz baby as its new managing director. Michael Gennaro, son of Broadway choreographer Peter Gennaro, has been chosen over 59 other applicants to become the chief business executive of one of the nation's best-known theater companies. Gennaro, 45, apparently got the nod primarily because of his wide-ranging experience as both performer and arts administrator.

After graduating from Notre Dame, Gennaro worked as an actor, appearing in various off-Broadway productions and national touring companies of shows as disparate as Godspell and Julius Caesar. He eventually turned from acting to law, earning a law degree from Fordham University and practicing as an entertainment attorney before moving into arts administration. After a couple years as general manager of a small regional theater company in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Gennaro became managing director at Ford's Theatre, the site of Lincoln's assassination and still one of D.C.'s preeminent theaters, where he stayed for four years. According to Ford's producing artistic director Frankie Hewitt, "Michael was a very stabilizing influence here, and he watched the money like crazy."

Sixteen months ago Gennaro accepted a job as managing director of the Pennsylvania Ballet, one of the nation's oldest ballet companies, which is headquartered in Philadelphia. Like many ballet companies these days, the Pennsylvania Ballet wasn't in good fiscal shape when Gennaro arrived. The subscriber base had plummeted, and the company was burdened with accumulative debt approaching $1.9 million. Though his first love was always theater, Gennaro says he took the job at the financially troubled ballet company in large part because he wanted to work alongside an old friend, Christopher d'Amboise, who had been the Pennsylvania Ballet's artistic director and principal choreographer for four years. But soon after Gennaro came aboard, d'Amboise announced he was leaving. Among other things, the ballet's board of directors had apparently decided the company needed to widen its repertoire and focus less on d'Amboise's choreography, and while the company's new artistic director organized a diverse season of dances by choreographers ranging from Alvin Ailey to Balanchine, Gennaro set about trying to turn around the company's fortunes by emphasizing marketing and single-ticket sales. Gennaro's efforts appear to have paid off. In the fiscal year that ended July 31, 1994, the Pennsylvania Ballet's annual deficit was $683,000, but Gennaro expects the company to break even for the fiscal year that ended last July.

Steppenwolf's new managing director claims his decision to leave the Pennsylvania Ballet wasn't prompted by dissatisfaction with his position there, but rather by the mystique surrounding the company he's set to join. "The Steppenwolf name always meant a lot to someone who had been an actor," says Gennaro. "I have followed the company since its beginning." Pennsylvania Ballet board chairman Milton Rock says he's sorry to see Gennaro go, especially before the three-year plan they'd devised to put the ballet company back on sound financial footing could be fully implemented. "Gennaro was smart, and he knew something about an arts organization," Rock says.

Since Steppenwolf is operating in the black, Gennaro won't have to confront a major financial crisis in his new position. Though Gennaro is reluctant to discuss his agenda for Steppenwolf, he does talk about "reenergizing" the organization and "reengaging with the [theater] community." Steppenwolf board members and others within its administrative ranks readily concede that in recent years the company hasn't expressed much interest in interacting with other local companies, and according to Gennaro and others at Steppenwolf, that attitude is about to change.

It's a Fizzle: New Simon Play Coming to Chicago

From now on, when they promote their upcoming Chicago production of Neil Simon's newest play, London Suite, producers Michael Leavitt and Fox Theatricals won't be able to refer to it as a current off-Broadway hit. Producers announced last week that the New York edition of the play will close on September 3, after a run of only five months. The Chicago production, directed by Leavitt, begins previews at the Briar Street Theatre September 26, with the opening scheduled for October 9.

One source close to the New York production attributed the show's short run to the lukewarm reception it got from critics, while some observers believe the show's director and cast weren't ideally suited to the material. Others point to the choice of an off-Broadway theater to house the production, a first for a Neil Simon play and a decision that producer Manny Azenberg said was made to circumvent the high cost of mounting plays on Broadway. But all of Simon's fans apparently weren't ready to follow him off-Broadway. Azenberg brought London Suite in for $650,000, but managed to recoup only 65 percent of the show's capitalization.

Perhaps to give the show a better chance of success in Chicago, Simon has completely rewritten the first of the four playlets that comprise London Suite. New York audiences evidently didn't respond well to the original opening, in which one character points a gun at another for much of the act. The new first act may have its world premiere at the Briar Street. "We're listening to it, and we'll see how it plays," says a spokeswoman for the show.

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