Chicago’s 200 theaters in full swing

By Jonathan Abarbanel

A warm and cordial welcome to Jonathan Abarbanel, whose regular columns many of you will remember from the Original Screen magazine. The theatre maven extraordinaire will keep ReelChicago readers updated on Chicago’s vibrant theatre scene on a semi-regular basis.

THE NEW SEASON among Chicago’s 200-or-so theater companies is in full swing, with more than 40 theater openings in September and another 40-plus in October. Quantity remains high despite tight budgets, but many theaters are hedging their bets–and their bucks–in other ways. The rub is that many corporations, foundations and government arts agencies announce grants one year to be spent the following year. So theaters only now are feeling the practical effects of last year’s funding cutbacks.

Many not-for-profit companies–among them powerhouse troupes such as Goodman, Steppenwolf, Court, Lookingglass and Northlight theatres–are turning to recent Broadway commercial productions and/or musicals to keep audiences happy and attract single ticket buyers. But the easiest dollar-saver is to produce shows with fewer actors. The season will abound with shows of two, three and four characters that require just one set. The quality of shows may be wonderful, but you’ll have to look hard to find adventurous material.

LAST WEEK’S EMMY AWARDS were so chock-full of Chicago faces, they should have called it Windy City Theater Night. To name just a few, William L. Petersen, David Schwimmer, Sean Hayes, John Mahoney, William H. Macy and Steven Shachter were among the presenters, Emmy winners, or audience members with past and/or present connections to Chicago’s fabulous theater industry.

One of the evening’s big winners was “Door to Door,” the TV film co-authored by Macy (who also starred) and Shachter. For the fun of it, we looked up old reviews of Macy from 1975, when he was a young Chicago actor appearing in the world premiere of “American Buffalo,” by David Mamet. Said sweet Richard Christiansen in the old Chicago Daily News, “The acting . . . By William H. Macy is so close to flawless that it becomes poetically heightened reality.” And tart Roger Dettmer in the Tribune said, “William H. Macy is the only winner in this production.”

IS CHICAGO READY for the return of Bruce Vilanch? The gnome-like guru of TV and nightclub special material will be here December 16-February 15 as star of “Hairspray” at the Ford Center/Oriental Theatre. Vilanch will appear in drag in the role played by Divine in the original film, and by Harvey Firestein on Broadway. For his role, Vilanch has cut off his signature bushy beard. We don’t know if he’s lost the glasses.

Vilanch lived and worked in Chicago in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, writing entertainment features and reviews for the old Chicago Today newspaper. He frequently performed late nights at Punchinello’s, the long-gone Rush Street show biz hang-out, where he perfected much of the material he used in the acts he wrote for Bette Midler.

HARRY J. LENNIX, the handsome ex-Chicago actor whose film work includes “Titus” for Julie Taymor and “Get on the Bus” for Spike Lee, is on the pulse of Illinois politics, even though now an Angelino. He’ll be back home October 6 to host a fundraiser for Barack Obama, the state legislator from Chicago who’s campaigning for the Democratic nomination for the United States Senate. Lennix is spearheading Artists for Obama.

The 6 p.m. event at the Gene Siskel Film Center will include a screening of Lennix’s latest, “Keep the Faith, Baby” for Showtime, a bio of the late powerful Congressman, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Putting his money where his mouth is, Lennix is paying for the fundraising materials himself.

Jonathan Abarbanel is theater contributor for WBEZ Chicago Public Radio, theater editor/critic for the weekly Windy City Times newspaper, and senior writer for the monthly program magazine, Chicago Footlights. Contact him at