Royal Pain / North Shore Center's Slow Start/ Look Before You Leap | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

Royal Pain / North Shore Center's Slow Start/ Look Before You Leap 

Rocco Landesman and other investors seek a graceful exit from the troubled Royal George Theatre Center

Royal Pain

Three years ago, there were high hopes for the Royal George Theatre Center. Local producer Robert Perkins had joined forces with New York-based Jujamcyn Theatres to take over the bankrupt complex, and many believed it would become a leading venue for trying out new plays and hosting touring productions. Led by producer Rocco Landesman, Jujamcyn could test shows here before transferring them to New York as well as have a ready home for its Broadway successes. But those plans haven't panned out. Sources say Jujamcyn now wants out and is shopping around its 50 percent stake in the facility.

Perkins might buy out his partners, if he can meet their asking price, or the complex may be sold to another buyer, if anyone's interested. Steppenwolf, which used the Royal George for its production of The Grapes of Wrath, reportedly took another look at the facility. Shakespeare Repertory has also been mentioned as a potential buyer. The property could be worth around $4 million. Perkins and Jujamcyn have never disclosed their buying price, but it was rumored to be around $1.8 million.

Perkins, who also heads the board of the League of Chicago Theatres, did not return phone calls for comment, but sources believe he's eager to buy Jujamcyn's 50 percent stake. Whether he could turn around the Royal George's fortunes is another question. The long-running Forever Plaid proved to be a moneymaker in the theater's small cabaret, and several local companies have mounted successful low-budget productions in the upstairs gallery space. But since Angels in America closed two years ago, Perkins and Jujamcyn have had a hard time hitting pay dirt on the main stage. Several months ago a source at Jujamcyn admitted the organization was having trouble locating commercially viable work to produce in the Royal George's 500-seat main theater. I Hate Hamlet received mixed reviews and struggled for several months to find an audience before dying. Mrs. Klein, starring theater legend Uta Hagen, was an even bigger bomb, closing abruptly last November after a run of only a couple weeks. The main stage has been dark since then.

The only successful shows in recent memory were both presented by Jam Productions: a brief run of Love Letters, starring Robert Wagner and Jill St. John, and the dance show Forever Tango. Perkins forced Forever Tango to vacate the space to make way for Mrs. Klein.

At present Jujamcyn has no new products in the pipeline. But it may not have soured on the Chicago market. Jujamcyn has reportedly held discussions with Jam about jointly operating the larger, 1,200-seat Vic Theatre as a legitimate house. Jujamcyn had already looked at the Bismarck Theater in the Loop, which now appears headed for renovation by the Nederlander Organization.

North Shore Center's Slow Start

The North Shore Center for the Performing Arts has been open for less than three months, but there are already signs of trouble at the $18 million facility. Earlier this week Dorothy Litwin stepped down from her post as head of Centre East, the major programmer for North Shore's 850-seat main stage space. "It's a retirement, not a resignation," says Litwin, who admitted that there's been some tension between her group and Skokie officials. Centre East's operations manager, Nida Tautvydas, will assume Litwin's responsibilities as acting executive director.

Litwin's retirement comes in the wake of the village's recent approval of a $75,000 line of credit to Centre East to help alleviate cash flow problems. A source says several attractions have played to less than 50 percent of capacity. A Kronos Quartet concert scheduled for February 7 was abruptly canceled because of slow ticket sales, but Centre East still must pay the musicians.

Wisdom Bridge Theatre was also supposed to be a major tenant at the North Shore until it became apparent that the company was in dire straits. Northlight Theatre stepped into the breech to become the principal theatrical tenant, but the company plans to use the main stage infrequently.

If Centre East has to bow out of its arrangement, the North Shore would have a hard time finding yet another major tenant for the main stage. But Skokie assistant manager Mark Vanderpool insists $75,000 will be enough to see Centre East through its current difficulties. While he admits some performances have attracted slight audiences, Vanderpool attributes the problems to the center not being "100 percent operational" when it opened. "There was no marquee, no signage, and the banquet space was not functional," he says. The facility is adding a second marketing staffer, and efforts to promote Centre East performances and other activities are being stepped up. To be viable, the complex needs to have its main stage occupied approximately 200 nights a year.

Several experts, including Litwin, point out that there are lessons to be learned from the North Shore's setbacks. One local arts executive says, "I hope the people involved with the proposed Chicago Music and Dance Theatre are watching." For years the viability of that $33 million project has been questioned, but those close to the plan insist it will move forward.

Look Before You Leap

Last week's item on the upcoming engagement of Michael Flatley's Lord of the Dance had the wrong dates. The show will play the Rosemont Theatre April 3 through 6.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Rocco Landesman photo by Marc Bryan-Brown.

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