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The New Royal George: Chicago's Next Big Theater?

Robert Perkins and his NY partner Rocco Landesman intend to establish a "two-way street" between Broadway and the Royal George.

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Robert Perkins and Rocco Landesman have thrown down the gauntlet. Against the backdrop of an increasingly anemic off-Loop theater industry, Chicago producer Perkins and Landesman, president of New York's Jujamcyn Theaters, announced plans last week to transform the Royal George Theatre into a busy venue for new work, commercial revivals, and the more challenging Broadway transfers.

A year ago Perkins and Jujamcyn jointly purchased the Royal George for an undisclosed sum believed to be in the neighborhood of $1.7 million. Since then Perkins, the somewhat reserved scion of a distinguished local banker, and Landesman, a native midwesterner turned high-profile, hard-nosed Big Apple impresario, have been quietly plotting the first round of programming for the complex's two largest spaces--the 450-seat main stage and 200-seat cabaret. They've come up with an odd mix that seems to live up to their eclectic goals.

Topping the list is the Chicago premiere of Tony Kushner's Angels in America, a two-part, seven-hour dramatic epic that tells the story of three groups of characters whose lives intertwine and deals bluntly and at times graphically with the topics of Mormons, homosexuality, and AIDS. Angels begins previews September 6 with a ticket price of $45, a new off-Loop high. Jujamcyn is the lead producer of the Broadway production, which is rumored to have cost close to $4 million to mount. (Part one has been playing there for a year, part two for six months.) From the moment Jujamcyn became a partner in Perkins's acquisition of the Royal George there was little doubt the play would wind up debuting in that space rather than at the Steppenwolf or the Goodman, two other early candidates. The Chicago production, with a price tag of just under $1 million, is expected to be cast almost entirely in Chicago. It will be directed by New York-based Michael Mayer under the supervision of the show's Broadway director, George C. Wolfe; sources say the producers tried hard to schedule the production to accommodate Michael Maggio, but ultimately Maggio's commitment to the Goodman's summer production of A Little Night Music took him out of the running.

Though it's surely one of the great plays of the past several decades--it has won both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award--Angels isn't going to be the easiest of sells here. At last week's press conference Perkins perhaps unintentionally revealed a bit of uncertainty about how Angels will fare when during his formal remarks he indicated that Kushner's play would run "between four and six months" on the Royal George main stage. (Afterward he insisted the show would stay on the boards for a full six months.) Unless they want to purchase a pricey subscription package (including the whole Royal George lineup plus the Who's rock opera Tommy at the Auditorium), patrons will have to pop for two $45 tickets to see the show in its entirety. Landesman says he wanted to scale the price closer to the $65 top tab in New York, but Perkins vetoed the idea. At $45 a seat, Angels could gross about $165,000 a week at the Royal George, and Landesman estimates the show's weekly running costs at $100,000 to $120,000, which means they could recoup their original $1 million investment in about 25 weeks, conservatively speaking. If it plays to big crowds it could leave Chicago to tour with its books in the black.

The rest of the Royal George lineup is less interesting. In June the two are producing the pre-Broadway world premiere of D.W. Washburn's All-Dancin', All-Singin', Black & White, Jive-Ass Rock 'n' Roll Revue, spotlighting the music of songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. If Perkins and Landesman had any questions about how conservative the theater market in Chicago is, they only had to look at the first ads announcing their programming in the city's two dailies. In both display ads the double s in "ass" was blanked out at the insistence of both papers' ad departments. "We're not going to change the show's title to accommodate the newspapers," says Perkins. Otis Sallid, a Los Angeles-based director who's done some Prince videos, will stage and choreograph the $3.5-million show, which could go on to New York after an eight-week run on the Royal George main stage. In the cabaret space, which is to undergo 150,000 dollars' worth of rehabbing to reconfigure the layout and increase seating capacity, Perkins and Landesman are reviving Forever Plaid. The light-as-a-feather musical tribute to the 50s and 60s begins an open-ended run in October.

Other local commercial producers reacted with cautious enthusiasm to the lineup. Notes Doug Bragan of the Ivanhoe Theater: "It sounds exciting, but I think they made a mistake in not deciding to do two [performances] on Saturday nights, when most people go out in Chicago." Adds veteran producer Michael Cullen: "They are doing a variety of shows that should give some pop and pizzazz to the off-Loop scene, and I think that is sorely needed."

The only new work on this year's schedule may be musical-revue fluff, but Perkins and Landesman maintain that they plan to develop new dramatic plays down the road as well--and they hope to send any new work on to Broadway or elsewhere. "This is going to be a two-way street," promises Landesman, whose list of important working playwrights includes Marsha Norman, Wendy Wasserstein, Paul Rudnick, Terrence McNally, and of course Tony Kushner. Landesman thinks New York--or at least Broadway--is an increasingly inhospitable environment for all but the latest hit musicals and maybe one important new play a season. But he says he believes Windy City audiences still support serious theater. For now, anyway, he's putting some money where his mouth is.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc Bryan-Brown.

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