Playing Around
by Chris Jones


Two to tango
The Shubert comes down with dance fever

One of the great unsung theatrical phenomena of recent years is the seemingly boundless popularity of tango on stage. Though other dance shows either play to small audiences or are forced to rev up raw movement with overblown, "Riverdance"-style theatrics, any show with "Tango" in its name appears destined to make a fortune.

When Robert Perkins' Royal George Theatre closed a lucrative production of "Forever Tango" last fall in favor of the unprofitable "Mrs Klein" (a traditional drama), the theatre soon found itself wishing the Latin dancers were still around. Just a year later, the Shubert is presenting another tango show -- "Tango x 2" opens October 7 for a two-week run.

Given that this show is little more than a collection of tango dances (yawn) and has a cast of only nine (not including an on-stage band), why is it selling so well? Part of the reason is, of course, the truism that sex sells. (The show is billed as "the most erotically charged dance performance you'll ever see.")

"We have a very sensual and erotic show," says "Tango x 2" creator Milena Plebs, employing an appropriately throaty accent and openly admitting the dance form's blatant sexism. "People like to have a sensual experience." Plebs resists any suggestion that the show's booking here is a response to the success of "Forever Tango."

"We have been doing this for years," she says, "well before they even thought of that other show. We're much better. We tell the story of the tango."

But another, more interesting issue is the role of one of theatre's most underestimated audiences -- the Latino community. An article last week in the New York Times noted that the success of these tango shows (which have been selling almost every available ticket in major cities) comes mainly from shrewd marketing to the Latino community.

The Shubert's Jill Hurwitz says the local Argentinian community is bigger than most people realize and it's hungry for arts events. "Tango x 2" is also being heavily sold in the Spanish-language press, and the Shubert is engaging in extensive "grass-roots marketing," focusing on Latino areas of the city. So far, Hurwitz says, these efforts have paid off handsomely and market research suggests many of the single-ticket buyers for "Tango x 2" will be stepping through the door of the Shubert for the first time. Good news for the rest of the industry.

ASTIN PARTIN': John Astin's poorly reviewed but surprisingly long-lasting tribute to Edgar Allen Poe leaves the Mercury Theatre October 19. In an attempt to pique some last-minute media interest, there was a seance after last Tuesday's performance which attempted to contact the dead poet's spirit on the 147th anniversary of his death, courtesy of a professional psychic.

Publicist Cheryl Lewin says Astin plans to do the show in California, but details on its long-term future are uncertain. Once Astin departs, the Mercury Theatre is bringing in yet more out-of-town entertainment for the holiday season. Tickets went on sale this week for a production of "Triple Espresso." Opening November 9 and billed as a tribute to lounge lizards everywhere, "Triple Espresso" is a conceptual piece of entertainment that uses a backstage narrative frame to entertain an audience with ersatz variety (including comedy, mime, music and magic).

These smaller programs with low costs and broad audience appeal are in big demand. After positive results in Minneapolis and San Diego, Minnesota-based producer Dennis Babcock (who has produced here before) is bringing what looks like a frothy holiday family show very suitable for the Southport Avenue yuppie corridor (with tickets priced at less than $25, it's far cheaper than last year's disastrous "That's Christmas"). Once again, Mercury Theatre owner Michael Cullen is acting exclusively as landlord to one of the best spaces in town; some of us are waiting for Cullen to fulfill his long-stated promise to produce a commercial show originating in Chicago.

FUNK THE FUTURE: Last weekend in Detroit I caught the opening of the first national tour of "Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk" ("Riverdance" from an African-American perspective), the same production scheduled for Chicago next spring, likely for a run of several months. Savion Glover, the principal artistic force behind this 1996 Broadway hit, is not performing, but director George C. Wolfe certainly found an impressive band of young hoofers to replace him. With a hip urban look, slick packaging and impressive dancing, this tour is perfect for large markets -- and has potential to attract a new and younger audience to the Shubert, especially if the theatre finds a way to create some lower-priced seating.*



Copyright 1997 New City Communications, Inc.