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Those Drifting Theatergoers: Will the Bible Get Them Back?/How About Companionship?/How About New Blood?

Entrepreneurially inclined female seeks sociable young adults for theater, conversation, and who knows? Call Andrea Kelly at the Chicago Theatre Guild.

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Those Drifting Theatergoers: Will the Bible Get Them Back?

Following almost nine months of relentless hype, the Live Entertainment Corporation of Canada opens its cleverly updated revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat Sunday at the Chicago Theatre. With its lavish production values and surprisingly witty biblical story line, the show may just enjoy the long run its producers are banking on. Slick musicals are nothing new to Loop theaters, but none in recent memory has catered to families as shrewdly as this one, with its melodic score, amusing scene design, locally cast chorus of 50 children, and flashy finale with light show and up-to-the-minute dance music and costumes. Spokesman Norman Zagier aptly compares the show to Disney's animated Aladdin, a sophisticated, upbeat, modern entertainment that managed to engage both adults and children. That breadth of appeal could be what puts this production in a separate league: no other recent Loop attraction, from Miss Saigon to The Will Rogers Follies, Camelot to The Goodbye Girl, has been able to draw those multiple-ticket-buying families on a scale of any consequence.

Despite hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on advertising thus far, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat opens on State Street with approximately $5 million in advance ticket sales, which is probably only enough to fill the 2,400-seat house for six or seven weeks. The show arrives in town with Donny Osmond but without any Broadway validation (another production opens there in November), and the smallish advance would suggest that audiences are taking a wait-and-see approach. Zagier argues, however, that the low sales are nothing to worry about, given the history of this production in other cities. Preopening tickets were a bit slow in Minneapolis, too, but rave reviews and rapid word of mouth were all it took to make the show a hit. It played to sold-out houses for its entire run there of 11 weeks, the longest engagement by far of any touring production in that city's history. And Zagier claims the show "could easily have run another 11 weeks had we been able to schedule them." Eleven weeks may not look like much from here, but until then no touring show had played Minneapolis longer than three.

Live Entertainment founder and president Garth Drabinsky is hoping for at least 12 months in Chicago, something no touring Loop musical has done for years. (Miss Saigon hobbled out of town after nine months.) But local producers are skeptical--a reflection of the downbeat mood that has set in this season throughout the theater community. Said one executive from an off-Loop theater of the increasingly difficult financial situation, "I don't think we're going to be able to fake it this year like we did last year." With their reserves running out, theaters can't afford to be choosy; and though some may resent the association with such a commercial undertaking, they all stand to benefit from the trickle-down effects of a long and lucrative run of this production.

How About Companionship?

One way some local theaters are addressing the problem of diminishing ticket sales is by offering a little more bang for the buck--in the form of social interaction. Both the Steppenwolf and the Shubert, among others, have instituted special gay and singles subscriptions, which will include preshow receptions. And an entrepreneur from the DePaul business school is offering young adults the opportunity to bond through a new program called the Chicago Theatre Guild. MBA candidate Andrea Kelly has devised a plan through which people can socialize and see plays together at reduced ticket prices. For an annual fee of $25 plus the cost of tickets, members will have the option of attending one play a month for seven months as part of a group. They'll meet at coffeehouses or restaurants before and/or after the shows, and Kelly hopes to have playwrights, directors, and actors join them for discussions. The play selections include productions at Steppenwolf, Goodman, and the Wellington so far. More info's available at 918-5179.

How About New Blood?

Aneed to diversify prompted the Steppenwolf Theatre Company to boost its ensemble to 30 from 23 members early this week. "We wanted to get a better balance of female to male voices in the company," says artistic director Randall Arney. Adds managing director Stephen Eich, "All of our women were well into their 30s or beyond." Before the additions the ensemble included only six women. Of the seven new members, five are women and two are twentysomethings. Steppenwolf finally got around to recruiting a black voice as well, with the addition of K. Todd Freeman. Ensemble members nominated the candidates and voted by mail. The final choices were "coordinated" by Arney, with further input from the ensemble. The new women are Mariann Mayberry, Martha Lavey, Lois Smith, Kathryn Erbe, and Sally Murphy. The new men are Freeman and Eric Simonson.

Culture writers need a break every now and then, but the one yours truly got last week was not the relaxing kind. During a Saturday morning of Rollerblading, I fell and broke an ankle that required surgery to repair. Cate Plys stepped in on very short notice to write last week's column. My thanks to her and the Reader staff for their help.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.

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