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CHICAGO CUES : Bums Rush In

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A radio revival of "Bleacher Bums" with Mantegna and Franz, Livent ascendant, and a Spring in step.

Los Angeles-based producer Susan Albert Loewenberg returns to Chicago next month to launch the seventh season of Chicago Theatres on the Air, modeled after Loewenberg's similar radio play series in L.A. This year, the eight tapings will take place at a much larger venue than previously: the 850-seat North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie. As always, they will be broadcast over WFMT.

Each play is produced in association with a name Chicago theatre company, and often is a work staged as part of the troupe's current or immediately past regular season. Thus Brian Dennehy will repeat his Goodman Theatre starring role in A Touch of the Poet, and Amy Morton and William L. Petersen will perform Victory Gardens Theatre's Flyovers, a new work by Jeffrey Sweet.

But the hottest ticket of all eight shows is bound to be Bleacher Bums, a recreation by director Stuart Gordon of a great hit from the late 1970s glory days of the Organic Theater Company (now mutated into the Organic Touchstone Company). For this revival, Gordon is (a) cleaning up the script considerably and (b) assembling the original Chicago cast, including Organic alums Joe Mantegna and Dennis Franz. Taping date is May 7. Mantegna also conceived and co-authored the classic comedy about the woes of die-hard Cubs fans.

And speaking of Mantegna, the noted actor will kill two birds with one visit, returning for the ninth time in 10 years to his alma mater, the Theatre School, DePaul University (called the Goodman School of Drama in Joe's student days), to host the school's major annual benefit, the Awards for Excellence in the Arts. The gala will be held May 8.

StageBeat Chicago

Irrepressible Garth Drabinsky conducted a Mar. 2 hardhat tour of Chicago's Ford Center for the Performing Arts/Oriental Theatre, which he said was "unequivocally on schedule" for its Oct. 27 grand opening. He noted that the advance sale for Ragtime, the opening production, has already passed $4 million.

The Ford Center/Oriental is a restoration of a vintage theatre with lush Asian fantasy decor, coupled with a vast expansion of the stage house and the addition of modern dressing rooms and rehearsal halls. The finished product will have a main floor much shallower than the New York Ford Center, with one much deeper balcony (plus a very shallow mezzanine ring). Total seating will be 2,140. The project cost is $32 million, of which $17 million comes from the city of Chicago

PBS will nationally air a one-hour documentary, Steppenwolf Theatre Company: Twenty Years on the Edge, about the Tony Award-winning Chicago troupe. In addition to interviews with ensemble members John Malkovich, Laurie Metcalf, John Mahoney, Gary Sinise, and Kevin Anderson, the special will feature music donated by Bruce Springsteen and Pat Metheny. The Steppenwolf program was produced two years ago by HMS Media, and first aired locally on PBS affiliate Ch. 11. HMS Media also has produced projects for the Joffrey Ballet, the Second City, Shakespeare Repertory Theatre, and Ch. 11's magazine program, ArtBeat Chicago

Chicago Dramatists Workshop has named five new resident playwrights to join 10 returning dramatists for three-year terms. The new writers are Jonathan Graham, Nambi E. Kelley, Jenny Laird, Brett Neveu, and Stephen Serpas. Residency status gives a playwright access to a pool of actors and directors, marketing assistance, exposure to producers, and participation in various levels of readings, productions, classes, and new work festivals

Illinois' lone Native American theatre company, Red Path Theater, teamed up in March with Studio Z for performances of Chili Corn, by poet and playwright E. Donald Two-Rivers. The performances were part of Studio Z's Chicago Play Initiative, a program that develops new plays about Chicago's history and various communities

Brian Russell has withdrawn as a candidate for artistic directorship of Northlight Theatre, which opens up upon the June retirement of Russell Vandenbroucke. Russell, who served as Northlight's assistant artistic director for three years, was considered a top contender for the post. He left Northlight just a year ago to become the first full-time artistic director of the much smaller American Theatre Company (ATC, formerly American Blues Theatre). Reportedly, he's informed both the ATC and Northlight boards that he is happy at, and committed to, ATC.

Dance to the Music

Dance, fool, dance! is the local watchword for the next seven weeks, as Chicago revels in the annual Spring Festival of Dance, featuring 11 local and foreign troupes. The festival kicked off Mar. 4 with a Joffrey Ballet of Chicago gala at the Auditorium Theatre, for which the troupe revived Kurt Jooss' The Green Table, seen here for the first time in 16 years.

Other attractions in the first weeks of the Spring Festival included the Chicago debut of the National Ballet of Spain, Wim Vandekeybus and Ultima Vez, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Mar. 25-29; Ballet Chicago's new full-length Coppelia, staged by artistic director Daniel Duell based on the choreography of Frederic Franklin, Apr. 1-5; Compagnie Philippe Saire, Apr. 2-5; the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, Apr. 8-9, and Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago presenting "Fat Tuesday and All That Jazz," featuring the Olympia Brass Band live, Apr. 7-10.

The Spring Festival of Dance is not the only show in town, however. Mordine & Company Dance Theatre offered a Mar. 5-7 program, while Afro-Cuban music and dance troupe Los Munequitos de Mantanzas appeared at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Mar. 13-15.

Meanwhile, Trinity Irish Dances are taking the show out of town, representing the United States at the Apr. 1-12 World Championship of Irish Dance. Trinity will field three teams in various age divisions, each of which will compete against up to 80 other teams. Since 1985, Trinity has won 13 world championship medals.

And brush off the tails and polish the keyboard: The 16th annual Duke Ellington International Conference will be held May 6-10 in Chicago, officially launching the Ellington Centennial. Celebrated trumpeter (and Ellington alumnus) Clark Terry is honorary chair of the event, dubbed "Royalty Comes to Chicago," which will include participation by Mercedes Ellington, poet Gwendolyn Brooks, and Jazz Unites, Inc. Daily performances will be featured in addition to musicological and historical programs. For more info, call (773) 288-3853.

Finally, from the Local Property Makes Good File: Given the great success David Mamet's 1970 play Lakeboat at the Lyric Hammersmith in London, it's worth recalling that this very early work, Mamet's first full-length play, was originally considerably longer than its present 70-minute running time. In fact, it sat unproduced and unread in David's trunk until 1978. Then a Chicago colleague of Mamet's, who was serving as play development director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, made David pull it out of his trunk and work on it. Its world premiere at the Milwaukee Rep in the fall of 1979 featured the late actor/playwright Larry Shue in the lead role, and led to a number of additional productions.

I'm proud to say that I was that colleague and play development director, and I've always thought of Lakeboat as my Mamet play. BSW

Jonathan Abarbanel also writes a column for Back Stage

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