Artist’s rendering of the Uptown Underground Grand Promenade
By Raymond Rehayem
I am even less qualified to build a stage, rig lighting, or put up drywall than I am to put on some pasties and do burlesque. Actually I might look strangely alluring in the aforementioned nipple patches installing one of the Uptown Underground’s lovely chandeliers, but my point is when I recently toured the venue I couldn’t visualize how wonderful it will look for its nearly sold-out New Year’s Eve opening night. It was still under construction. Luckily Kiss Kiss Cabaret’s Chris O. Biddle and Jenn A. Kincaid, the pair behind this new 7,000-square-foot theater, were there to fill in the gaps in my imagination.
In the basement of architect Walter W. Ahlschlager’s 1926 Uptown Broadway Building, the cabaret arts mecca that the Kiss Kiss founders envision will occupy a space which—per neighborhood lore—once housed a speakeasy. The building’s ornate exterior immediately evokes the era.
While scouting locations, Biddle couldn’t believe the fortuitous availability of this historic edifice. “I knew the address,” he explains, “and I thought ‘surely it isn’t that big caramel wedding cake.’ And it is. It’s this beautiful baroque style.”
Like many cakes, the lowest level is the widest. There are columns on either side of what Biddle describes as the “grand promenade,” the western side actually extending under Broadway’s sidewalk. Passage between these columns will take you beyond the elevated main stage, past a wall of retro amusements such as vertical pinball machines, art deco claw machines, and a fortune-telling machine, to a more intimate secondary performance space. With the main stage seating 150, the secondary stage seating fifty to sixty, and multiple dressing rooms to facilitate the overlapping of performers, the entertainment need never stall. In what’s being dubbed the Moon Room of the Starlight Lounge, a gal will sip martinis perched on a six-foot-high crescent moon acquired from a Twin Cities production of “Mame.” Read the rest of this entry »
Playwright Gregg Opelka is quick to point out why Chicago doesn’t need another Christmas show. “It’s funny. There are all these Christmas shows right now because obviously Christmas is the bigger holiday. But you don’t get the emotional hook that you get with New Year’s Eve.” “Marrying Terry,” Opelka’s romantic comedy of mistaken identities set within Chicago’s legendary Drake Hotel on New Year’s Eve (see separate review in listings), is his attempt to correct this.
“As one of the characters in the play says, ‘New Year’s Eve is a great night for making fresh starts.’ And to me that idea gives you fertile ground as a playwright because really, what are plays about but about people starting over?” Opelka isn’t starting over as much as starting out. Although he boasts a resume that would make any composer/conductor green as the Grinch with envy—seven libretto translations for Light Opera Works; eight full-length musicals produced all across the USA and internationally—“Marrying Terry” is his first straight play. “Edna St. Vincent Millay has a line in one of her sonnets which sort of explains my desire to write a play. She wrote, ‘Never shall one room contain me quite.’ I just wanted to take a shot at it.” And why the Drake? “Ironically, I have never stayed at the Drake. In fact, until I started writing this show I’d never even set foot in it. It just seemed like the place.” In conversation the pale and bespectacled Opelka is affable and earnest, with a boy-scout charm—he’s a youthful 51—and constantly moving hands with which he indicates or runs through his head of thick, auburn hair. “When I was 12 years old I was a poetry nerd. Other kids were playing football and baseball. I was reading Keats, Shelley and Byron.” Hopeless romantic? “I like to describe myself as a pathological optimist,” he quietly laughs.
Still, he’s bummed that “Marrying Terry” won’t have an actual New Year’s Eve performance. “It would have been so great. We’ll get close with a Sunday performance, but unfortunately New Year’s Eve falls on a Monday and the theater is not open. But I tried. I pushed for it.” And then a thought hits Opelka. “Maybe we could start Sunday’s performance at ten at night so that it ends—technically—on New Year’s Eve.”
Spoken like a true pathological optimist, indeed. (Fabrizio O. Almeida)
“Marrying Terry” at the Victory Gardens Greenhouse Theater, 2257 North Lincoln, (773)871-3000. This production is now closed.
Although there are tons of Christmas shows out there, how many New Year’s shows can you name? Gregg Opelka’s “Marrying Terry” is an attempt to remedy that situation with a uniquely Chicago slant. Set on a current-day New Year’s Eve at the Drake Hotel during a blizzard, “Marrying Terry” plays to the fact that there are two Terrys, one male, one female, with the same first and last name who end up accidentally sharing a room together even though each is engaged to someone else (it should be said that the set-up to accomplish this plot device goes on far longer than needed since we smell this coming a mile away). Chaos and mix-ups ensue a la opera and operetta (Opelka is best known for writing musicals and for translating operettas), except that there is no music except for some original synth bumpers and Guy Lombardo doing “Auld Lang Syne.” Lombardo has been dead for decades now, although he was closely associated with New Year’s Eve, but hey, Dick Clark came along and replaced him and even he has had a stroke and isn’t feeling well, so this is hardly a current-day New Year’s Eve. If the setting were long, long ago in a Chicago galaxy far, far away, this might work. As it is, these people seem more at home in the “I Love Lucy” era, not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, the show has a pleasant nostalgic feel to it that should be particularly warm and fuzzy for Baby Boomers and older, or for those who want to experience a more-friendly era. Opelka has a wonderfully witty and comic touch and the show is overflowing with heart and romance, perhaps too much for some. The ensemble cast is first-rate and are a likable bunch to ring in a New Year with, even if this is an old New Year. (Dennis Polkow)
At the Victory Gardens Greenhouse, 2257 North Lincoln, (773)871-3000. This production is now closed.