Anyone in show business — anyone with a clue, anyway — who found their way to No Exit Cafe in
Theo Ubique, which has the new production of
Better yet, Leiber and Stoller were both prolific and frequently worked with others. And thus by taking a liberal view of what actually constitutes a Leiber-and-Stoller song, "Smokey Joe" could literally trot out some 40 recognizable hits in a couple of hours, from "Hound Dog" to "Spanish Harlem" and back again. No wonder this show, which has no discernible book whatsoever, played on Broadway for 2,036 performances, after a tryout right here in Chicago.
Theo Ubique is not the only storefront theater in Chicago to produce small, low-budget musicals, but it is the one where you can most trust the quality of the singing and the invention of the staging. And even by Theo Ubique standards, the "Smokey Joe" production was especially impressive. Mostly fresh from school — which is where the core demographic for this show dreams of returning — the attractive cast was young and non-Equity. And the director, Brenda Didier, had worked up quite a lather with all these sexy songs.
So it was no great surprise that Gitta K. Jacobs and Jim Jensen scooped this one up for the Royal George Theatre Cabaret. Both Jacobs and Jensen are veteran producers with mainstream tastes. Jacobs was behind a variety of commercial productions in the 1980s and 1990s in Chicago; Jensen used to run the very theater that the show will rent, beginning Thursday. You can't beat the popularity of the title, the quality of the production is solid indeed and, given the local, non-Equity cast, you also can't beat the cost structure. They'd kill for that pay scale in New York, where the actors union would not allow a non-Equity show to play an important for-profit venue. But in Chicago, there is more flexibility.
"Smokey Joe" should dispense much pleasure in the George, and it certainly will provide gainful employment for some young Chicago actors. This will be the first Theo Ubique production to make a commercial transfer; there have been many other candidates.
Slowly but surely, it seems, the commercial theater business in Chicago is coming back to life. The other transfer from a relatively small theater is "To Master the Art," the 2010 play about Julia and Paul Child that was penned by William Brown and Doug Frew and first seen at the TimeLine Theatre in Chicago. The Chicago Commercial Collective, the commercial producers of a new production beginning in September, has struck a deal not just to rent Broadway in Chicago's Broadway Playhouse but to land a spot on Broadway in Chicago's coveted subscription season.
This isn't the first time Broadway in Chicago has sold a local show to its subscribers; it did the same with the House Theatre hit "The
I think the play will need a lot of improvement from 2010 — a gauzy hagiography does not a drama make, nor is that soft focus true to Child's unstinting self — but there's no forgetting the simply dazzling performance from Karen Janes Woditsch as the famous icon of domesticated French cooking, not the sheer fun of a play in which people are cooking in the style of Le Cordon Bleu right before your eyes and nose. In 2010,