Chi legit has spring in its step

Sondheim's 'Bounce,' debuting venue enliven summer scene

Summer is coming late to a lake-cooled Chicago this year, but at least there’s some heat in the theaters.

Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim are working together for the first time in 22 years. “Friends” star David Schwimmer is drawing buckets of attention to the spiffy new Lookingglass Theater, located smack in the middle of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile on one of the most trafficked street corners in America. And with the help of Frank Galati and the Steppenwolf Theater, Tony Kushner is hard at work on a heavily revised version of his “Homebody/Kabul.”

Most of the attention, of course, is focused on the Goodman Theater, which is presenting “Bounce,” the story of Addison and Wilson Mizner and Sondheim’s first new musical in nine years. The show is on track to open June 30.

The convoluted history of the musical — formerly titled “Wise Guys” and later “Gold” — has been well documented, both in and out of court. (Sondheim and Scott Rudin, an early investor, got in a tussle in fall 2001 over future rights to the work after the flop workshop.)

So have the comings and goings of the cast: Both Faith Prince and Nathan Lane had previous attachments to the project. (Lane starred in the “Wise Guys” workshop directed by Sam Mendes in 1999.) The current cast features former Chicago actor Richard Kind (of “Spin City” and “Mad About You” fame), Howard McGillin (a longtime Phantom on Broadway) and recent Tony winner Michele Pawk, prized for her perf in “Hollywood Arms,” which began under Prince’s baton at the Goodman before going to Broadway.

At a recent press conference in the Windy City, the creative team was intent on deflating any expectations of major, serious fare. Prince described the show as “a little vaudeville” and said he “felt safe” at the Goodman. Sondheim insisted the show is merely a “musical comedy,” Sondheim score or no Sondheim score. The musical extracts performed were bouncy in the extreme. And choreographer Michael Arnold talked in detail about re-creating the classic moves of the vaudeville circuit.

In essence, the big change in the show from the ill-fated workshop directed by Mendes is a grand turn toward the comedic and the energetic.

“It’s about energy,” Prince said. “That’s why we changed the title.”

The composer, one suspects, wanted a light show all along. Sociopolitically inclined book writer John Weidman, one suspects, always was somewhere in the middle. How it all plays out soon will be revealed.

When asked, Prince refused to talk about anything beyond the Chi production, to which he has declined to invite the national press (at this juncture, at least). The Goodman is deferring to his wishes — although the theater (which had been hoping to trumpet its recent ranking by Time magazine as the top regional house in the country) had good reason to be none too happy about it.

Following the Chi premiere, which is heavily sold out, the piece moves to Washington’s Kennedy Center in the fall, and whispers naturally suggest Broadway as the next stop. Since it will be hard to keep everyone together, it’s a fair bet that such a bow would take place in time to be Tony-eligible in 2004 — assuming thing go well in Chicago.

Broadway producer Roger Berlind, an investor in the original workshop, has enhancement money in the Chicago production.

Things have been going very well indeed for the Lookingglass Theater, a Chi troupe with a reputation for flashy visuals and original adaptations of non-dramatic material. This is the troupe that originated “Metamorphoses,” Mary Zimmerman’s Broadway hit. Indeed, it was Lookingglass that first brought Zimmerman’s work to national attention. The troupe also has been boosted by its link to Schwimmer, the $1 million-an-episode star of the sitcom “Friends” and one of the founders of Lookingglass.

Last week, Lookingglass opened a spiffy $5.5 million theater (part of its cost donated by Schwimmer) in the old Water Tower Pumping Station. Thanks to the sponsorship of the city, which wanted a classy operation inside this historic building, the rent will be only a nominal amount.

The inaugural production was “Race: How Blacks and Whites Feel About the American Obsession,” Schwimmer’s self-directed adaptation of the Studs Terkel oral history of racial interaction in modern-day America. Also on the slate are a restaging of “The Secret in the Wings,” a Zimmerman project, and a new tuner by Joy Gregory, a Lookingglass founder turned busy L.A. writer. That musical, “Philosophy of the World,” tells the true tale of a girl-group called the Shags. But for now, the attention is on “Race.”

“We wanted,” Schwimmer says, “to start with a show that reflects the experience of all Chicagoans.”

“Race,” which featured Lookingglass’ trademark style of story-theater, multiple narrators and flashy visuals, is unlikely to support a major afterlife. Aside from being Chi-centered, the material now is a decade old.

Given both the talent in the ensemble and the clout of one of the founders (who remains passionately involved), important stuff likely will flow in the future from the Water Tower.

The theater has attracted a lot of attention because of its unique location in the heart of Chi’s tourist area. All of the other downtown theaters are in the Loop — away from Chi’s retail and tourist center. But tens of thousands of people a day walk past the new Lookingglass, which is likely to help build auds for a troupe that’s rapidly becoming the hippest ticket in the city.

The only drawback of the new space is that it can house only about 300 people; however, if the theater were paying a commercial rent, it would be spending millions of dollars a year.

Steppenwolf, which likes to style itself the city’s flashiest theater, is pinning its summer hopes on a new version of “Homebody/Kabul,” Kushner’s drama that has taken on new relevance in the light of recent hostilities in Iraq. Kushner is hard at work on integrating new material into the piece.

Galati’s Steppenwolf production is heading for the Mark Taper Forum in the fall — and then there are some whispers about a return to New York.

“Tony is really working hard on the play,” the typically ebullient Galati says. “I think it will be extraordinary.”

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