When autumn leaves begin to fall

Artistic fall fun returns to Chicago as the seasons change

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The Tony Award-winning musical Rent celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Pictured is the Company of the Rent 20th Anniversary Tour. Photo credit Amy Boyle 2019.

In recent months, big plans were made for reopening theaters and welcoming performers and audiences back to the places where they have yearned to be for more than a year and a half. But while many opening dates are still on the 2021-2022 schedule--with tickets being sold and rehearsals underway--the "virus variants" are flexing their muscles, too. Theaters are reinstating stringent safety guidelines, and a feeling of tentativeness cannot be denied.

At the same time, the classic cry proclaiming that "the show must go on" cannot be easily dismissed. And here is proof that hope springs eternal, and the arts are determined to persevere.

Landmark building's theaters renovate and upgrade

Jacob Harvey was recently named the first-ever Managing Artistic Director at Chicago's landmark Fine Arts Building at 410 S. Michigan. As part of his new role, he is now tasked with overseeing an estimated $3 million project that will involve the upgrading of its 600-seat Studebaker Theater, and the re-design and re-opening of its more intimate, long dormant Playhouse Theater.

He still vividly remembers his introduction to the world of theater. Born into a Jewish family in New York that relocated to Los Angeles, Harvey's maternal grandfather was an actor on Broadway and on television, his grandmother also had an acting career, and an uncle on his father's side worked as an entertainer "on the road."

"From early on, my siblings and I were steeped in the world of theater, and were taken to shows and concerts," said Harvey, during a recent chat.
Harvey returned to New York to attend Marymount Manhattan College, and subsequently worked as a producer/director both there and San Francisco, before moving to Chicago to serve as Producing Artistic Director of The Greenhouse Theatre from 2015-2018 (where, most notably, he directed a blistering production of the American classic, Machinal ). From there it was on to a stint with Cirque du Soleil and The Works Entertainment as a producer of The Illusionists , the hit magic show.

Now, in collaboration with the Berger Realty Group and Erica Berger (whose late father, Bob Berger, bought the Fine Arts Building in 2005), Harvey will direct the elegant Studebaker's upgrade--with improved seating and audio-visual potential, while still serving as host to such companies as Chicago Opera Theater, Ballet 5:8, the Chicago Jazz Orchestra, and the Chicago International Puppet Theater. And he will oversee the complete rehab of the Playhouse as a flexible event space.

Explaining the aim of the project, Harvey said: "It is to provide two vibrant performance spaces that are accessible to local artists and nonprofit organizations, while also serving as a desirable downtown location for out-of-town productions--all in a neighborhood replete with hotels, and with such other arts institutions as the Auditorium Theatre, the Art Institute of Chicago, and Orchestra Hall."


Historic preservation is another goal of the project for this 10-story building that is home to artists' lofts, art galleries, theater, dance and music studios, design firms, a yoga studio, musical instrument makers, and the recently arrived Exile in Bookville bookstore.

Berger, who commutes between Los Angeles and Chicago, hopes to make the Fine Arts building's theaters "a downtown nexus where people from all parts of the city can converge, with book talks and social impact conferences as well as performances." She also wants to find a restaurant to replace the Artist's Cafe, the street level diner that was a mainstay for nearly six decades until it closed in early 2019. (Another Fine Arts building mainstay--its elevator operators--will continue to do their job.)

Despite all the construction work, the show will go on at the Studebaker. "We have arranged time for Chicago Opera Theater's holiday show, Becoming Santa Claus (Dec. 11, 17 and 19), its concert version of The Beekeeper (March 4, 2022), and its production of Quamino's Map (April 23, 29 and May 1)," said Harvey. "Also opening in the spring will be Skates , a new roller skating musical originally scheduled to open last spring at the now defunct Royal George Theatre.

The return of musicals
Three very different musicals--all with "a Jewish twist" by way of their creators and/or characters--are slated to receive revivals this month, and it will be interesting to see how they key into the temper of this moment in time.

Ragtime (a Music Theatre Works production at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, Oct. 28- Nov. 7). This grand-scale, award-winning work is based on E.L. Doctorow's novel of the same name, with a score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. The show brings together the story of a Black ragtime pianist, an upscale white family, and Tateh, a Latvian Jewish immigrant and artist. And it involves historical characters, too: Harry Houdini, the fabled illusionist, son of Hungarian Jewish immigrants, and Emma Goldman, the fiery political activist with Russian Jewish roots. Visit MusicTheaterWorks.com.

Rent (presented by Broadway in Chicago at the CIBC Theatre, Oct. 5 - 10). This is the 25th anniversary production of Jonathan Larson's Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical. A riff on the La Boheme opera, it is set in Manhattan's East Village neighborhood in the mid-1990s during a time when AIDS was still rampant. The story captures the struggles of a mix of young artists, entrepreneurs, and others as they try to forge careers and relationships and just get through life. Visit BroadwayinChicago.com.

Songs for a New World (at Theo Ubique Theatre, now through Oct. 24). This song cycle with a pop/gospel/jazz sound put composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown on the musical theater map in 1995, but could not have a more appropriate title for this COVID-era moment in time. It is built around the theme that "one moment" can upend and change anyone's life. Brown went on to write the scores for Parade , about the lynching of Leo Frank, and Bridges of Madison County. Visit theo-u.com.


Hedy Weiss, a longtime Chicago arts critic, was the Theater and Dance Critic for the    Chicago Sun-Times  , and currently writes for    WTTW-TV's   website and contributes to the    Chicago Tonight    program.

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