New Chi venue bows

Commercial house aims at Off Broadway fare

CHICAGO — After nearly five years of construction delays and numerous false starts, the new Chicago Center for the Performing Arts finally looks set to open, easing the squeeze on Windy City spaces available to house Off Broadway-style legit.

The opening attraction at the new venue next week is “Love Letters,” starring Charlton Heston and his wife, Lydia Clark Heston. Other stars for the perennial A.R. Gurney crowdpleaser are slated to be announced shortly.

Located off the tourist path in a warehouse district, but still only a short cab ride from the tony Michigan Avenue shopping district, the new for-profit space has consumed some $5 million during its troubled buildout.

It’s the baby of Anthony Tomaska, producer of “Tony ‘N’ Tina’s Wedding” at Piper’s Alley in Chicago (where the show has been playing for more than eight years) and a variety of other markets, including Boston, London, Las Vegas and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

“Every time there was a choice of absolute best or something we could just get away with, we chose the best,” says Tomaska, explaining why his new privately owned theater took so long to build. “Frankly, we got into some financial trouble, and it took years longer than we wanted. But when people see the venue, they’ll understand that it was worth waiting.”

Tomaska has hired Darren Cole, producer of “Killer Joe” and an experienced Gotham general manager, to program and manage the new Chi space.

Cole says the 350-seat theater (which comes with stadium-type skyboxes) plans to present sit-down versions of the latest Off Broadway fare, either in collaboration with Gotham producers or as a rental facility.

There are also plans to originate shows in Chicago. The first year’s eclectic “season” also includes an Equity, for-profit production of David Hare’s “The Blue Room” (a far cry from Charlton Heston) using an all-Chi cast. That will be followed by a production of “Miracle on 34th Street” in time for the holidays.

“We’re going to be the closest Off-Loop venue to downtown,” Cole notes.

Tomaska produced several movies in the 1980s under the banner of Magnificent Mile Prods., working with the likes of Ben Stiller, Courtney Cox and John Cusack. But for the past decade he’s mostly made his money from “Tony ‘N’ Tina” and concentrated on finally getting this theater built. He says a second stage with 200 seats is almost done, and a third 100-seat venue is just behind that.

“We’re very consumer-conscious,” he adds. “There’s a nice, large lobby with a very big bar.”

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