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Off-Loop theater grows hot as New York incubator

Chicago's reputation as a place where New York shows are born has come a long, long way from the occasional shot 20 years ago to a regular parade of productions nowadays. Many are shows that began life as locally-produced plays or musicals, among them Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County" at Steppenwolf, the jukebox show "Million Dollar Quartet" at the Apollo Theater, Chicago Dramatists' smash cop drama "A Steady Rain," Next Theatre's original musical adaptation of "The Adding Machine" and Kristofer Diaz's "The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity" at Victory Gardens. Pre-Broadway shows also have found fertile territory in the big Loop houses where "Spamalot, the Musical," "The Producers" and "The Addams Family" are among successes that did their try-outs here.

But a much rarer and occasional phenomenon is a show aiming for a big, Broadway triumph that does its try-out in a small Off-Loop playhouse. Past instances include "Smokey Joe's Cafe" at the Royal George Theatre, Lily Tomlin's first Broadway show,” Appearing Nightly," at the long-defunct St. Nicholas Theatre Company and the very recent stop of “Daddy Long Legs” at Northlight Theatre. Right now, our Off-Loop has grown hot as a New York incubator—perhaps on the heels of the success of "Million Dollar Quartet" still running at the Apollo—as several big showbiz guns are bringing new projects to town, one being no less than superstar Whoopi Goldberg functioning as a producer, not as a performer.

Ms. Goldberg and three associates will bring a cast of 19 to the 450-seat Royal George Theatre for a new rock musical, "White Noise," about the intersection of pop/rock music and current social issues. It's believed to be based on the actual history of Prussian Blue, a sisters act popular several years ago among white supremacists for coded lyrics delivering political messages. "White Noise" will be directed and choreographed by Sergio Trujillo (with "Jersey Boys" and "The Addams Family" among his Broadway credits as choreographer). "White Noise" is co-authored by Matte O’Brien (book) and Robert Morris, Steven Morris and Joe Shane (music and lyrics) based on a concept by Ryan J. Davis and Joe Drymala's story and characters, which is a lotta' cooks for one soup. It plays the Royal George beginning April 1. The run is announced for eight weeks, but no closing date has been posted, which means the show hopes to stay longer than that.

Far more unusual still is the arrival of a world premiere musical, “Starship,” at the 250-seat Hoover-Leppen Theatre of the LGBT Center on Halsted, Feb. 11-23. The show is developed and produced by StarKid (sic) Productions, an internet phenomenon that sprang to life in 2009 at the University of Michigan, and is best-known for its internet theatrical hit, “A Very Potter Musical.” If you, like me, previously were unfamiliar with this entity, here’s how they describe themselves: “StarKid represents a collection of writers, directors, actors and designers dedicated to creating accessible, quality theatre. StarKid is pioneering the use of the internet as a new and innovative way to produce theatre and make it accessible to millions of people around the world.  The art of live performance blended with the accessibility and quality of HD filming has created a new world of distribution and opportunity for theatre.”

The idea here is that they throw the show up for a short live run, and then edit and package it for internet viewing while producing an original cast CD at the same time. What the spin-offs may be for additional, bigger, longer-run live performances is completely untested at the moment. Without question, that’s why StarKid wants to test the waters in a major theatrical pond, and before a battalion of substantial theater critics.

StarKid describes itself as serving a comedy musical niche (not the usual “musical comedy” phrasing) and their storytelling sophistication may be a bit on the collegiate side, which isn’t by itself a bad thing (after all, Arthur Miller began writing plays at the University of Michigan). “Starship” is set in the distant future on a far-off world inhabited by a race of giant alien insects where the hero, “Bug,” has never quite fit into bug-society. When his planet is visited by a starship of colonizing humans, Bug sets out to find love and save the world. See what I mean? Well, at $25 per ticket—considerably less than “White Noise”—the price is right.

“Starship” is directed by Matt Lang with a book by Lang, Nick Lang, Brian Holden, and Joe Walker and music/lyrics by StarKid co-founder Darren Criss (now a star singer/performer on “Glee“). The show features puppets by Russ Walko. Once again, that’s a helluva lot of cooks for the creative soup, but maybe they can make it work. StarKid’s previous internet theatricals have generated over 50 million Youtube hits and counting.

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