With Diane Lane prowling the boards at the Goodman Theatre, not long after Nathan Lane in "The Iceman Cometh," and with Jimmy Smits now lined up for "The Motherf**ker with the Hat" later this season at Steppenwolf Theatre, star casting has suddenly arrived in Chicago.
Wait, you cry, Steppenwolf has plenty of star names in its ensemble who like to work in Chicago. That's true, of course, but those actors (like, say, George Wendt, who is about to do "The Odd Couple" at Northlight Theatre) have a long connection to Chicago theater, and their appearances in town have been very much part of that commitment. You could say the same of William Petersen, to cite another actor who sells tickets. But that's not true of Smits, nor of Diane Lane.
It's more a logical outgrowth of the same phenomenon on Broadway, where Katie Holmes and Al Pacino are slated to star this fall, with Scarlett Johansson on tap for spring. Big movie stars have been appearing in Broadway shows for years. It is a much newer thing here. So what has changed?
Well, to some extent it's a matter of the increased prestige and visibility of Chicago theater and its regular artists. Big stars do stage shows partly because they want to, of course, but also because they see it as a prestige play, a chance to show their chops in a boutique setting. For that to be attractive at low theater wages, they (or, more importantly, their agents) want to be assured that those chops will be surrounded by a production that is seen by those who can burnish their careers. In Chicago, where all kinds of industry types now lurk, that's increasingly true.
But this phenomenon also is a consequence of certain Chicago-connected directors (like Anna D. Shapiro and David Cromer) being represented by some big talent agencies. Many of these deals in New York are massaged by agents, who see putting a big acting name in one of their trusted director's shows as a win for actor and director. That is starting to bleed into Chicago.
Interestingly, stars are arriving on the city's leading resident stages at a moment when touring stars have all but dried up. You're far more likely now to see an A-list movie or TV star at the Goodman or Steppenwolf than in a touring Broadway production. It's a fascinating turnaround. Tours take too long, and the current generation of stars does not have the troupe mentality of the older generation of actors. A few weeks burning things up at Steppenwolf is far more attractive.
Is a starry Chicago a good thing? Sure, within reason. One of the dangers on Broadway is that you can't get a show produced at all without a star in the lead role. That does not really apply here. It's not like Steppenwolf would not be producing "Hat" without Smits. They'd be doing it anyway. And, in this instance, adding his name to the roster makes that production yet more interesting, given that Chris Rock, the original Broadway star, was not, to my mind, an asset in the original production, also directed by Shapiro. It will be interesting to see what she does with Smits.
Chicago actors tend to have mixed feelings about this, just as they do in New York. In general, most of them seem not to mind when the star mixes well with the Chicago-based ensemble, and behaves unselfishly on stage in the Chicago tradition, but are annoyed when the opposite occurs and the visiting star either is all wrong for the role or refuses to be part of the whole. In Cromer's excellent production of "Sweet Bird of Youth" at the Goodman Theatre, Diane Lane fuses seamlessly with Chicago hands like John Judd and Penny Slusher. And, let's be honest, Lane is playing a movie star. She knows well how to act like one; she has been one for years. Her presence only enhances everyone's experience.
But let's not forget one thing. At "Jitney" at the Court Theatre, you can currently see the work of A.C. Smith. In "Good People" at Steppenwolf, you can see the work of Mariann Mayberry. Both have a long history of Chicago work. Neither are big box-office names. But no star could have eclipsed their must-see work in these leading roles.
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