Abarbanel: The demise of Billy Elliot, Arts-friendly lawmakers and cop-shop theater
"Billy Elliot" closes Nov. 28 at the Ford Center/Oriental Theatre ending a disappointing run of eight months. The buzz is that dirty words are to blame. The big musical, about the young Northern England boy who wants to be a dancer, won 10 Tony Awards on Broadway and opened here last April to sensational reviews. It was expected to run for two years, like "Wicked" and "Jersey Boys." Instead, it's often played to less than 50% of capacity.
Street talk is that families and theater parties stayed away in droves when word-of-mouth circulated about the show's rough vocabulary and background of 1980's English industrial strife. The musical is entirely faithful to the 2000 hit movie upon which it's based, but the film was marketed to adults while the musical has been pitched as family-friendly. If it doesn't past muster in Chicago, it won't past muster anywhere outside New York City, so much of the rough stuff has been cut or rewritten during the Chicago run, but too late. There will be more fine-tuning at the show's next stop, Toronto.
A member of the "Billy Elliot" company believes the show's multi-cultural casting also has been a factor. The extremely demanding title role is shared by three boys (and an understudy), two of whom are Latino. Apparently some audience members have been unable to suspend disbelief and accept a Latino performer as an English coal miner's son. Shame on the audience.
Senator Mark Kirk, Governor Pat Quinn: what does their election mean for the arts? The litmus test in Congress is support for the National Endowment for the Arts and Arts in Education programs. The litmus at the state level is support of the Illinois Arts Council (which incorporates state-level arts education funding, if any). While in the U.S. House, Mark Kirk was a member of the Congressional Arts Caucus and was given an "A" rating by the Arts Alliance of Illinois, the state's principal arts advocacy group. Kirk's old Congressional district included the arts-rich North Shore, home to the Ravinia Festival among many cultural institutions. Pat Quinn also supports the arts even in desperate economic times. The Illinois Arts Council budget is just $8.5 million--slashed by over 60%--but the agency still survives despite some calls for its elimination. Quinn supports the continued existence of the IAC and has maintained level funding for it--albeit at the reduced level--through the two fiscal years of his governorship.
This Thursday-Sunday (Nov. 11-14) Chicago will host the International Conference of the Association for Jewish Theatre, in part because the AJT's current president is Chicago theater professor and director David Chack. The AJT also has two Chicago-area member companies, the Piven Theatre Workshop and the Northwestern University Jewish Theatre Ensemble, which are co-hosting the conference along with Lookingglass Theatre Company and ShPIel--Performing Identity (sic), a new Chack-devised Jewish theater ensemble at DePaul University. The AJT has member theater troupes from Austria, Canada, Hungary, Israel and the United States. New individual and company members are solicited and several of the Conference panels and performances are open to the public. Details are available at www.afjt.com.
Years after I first reported this story--literally years--the Griffin Theatre Company is making if official: the troupe will refurbish the former police station at 1940 W. Foster Avenue as a new permanent home. We can see it now: the jail cells will be dressing rooms and the old magistrate's court will be the playhouse proper. Actually, it's the City of Chicago that's making it official after hemming and hawing over the deal for years, during which Griffin has spent over $100,000 for architectural plans and studies. The alderman and neighborhood associations support the deal. Such re-use of City-owned property usually means the City is selling the venue to Griffin for a nominal $1 dollar, or leasing it to the troupe at $1/year . . . but Griffin must come up with over $1 million to retrofit the hooskow as a playhouse. Founded in 1988, Griffin Theatre occupied the one-time Calo Theatre in Andersonville from 1992-2005 and now will return to the old 'hood.
Griffin's current show, the musical "Company," continues at Stage 773 through Nov. 14.