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Chicago stage stars singing the songs of McCartney or Karen Carpenter? Artists Lounge sees a big opportunity

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 11/13/2019 By Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune

Want to hear Michael Mahler sing Paul McCartney’s “Silly Love Songs”? You can, at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire in March.

How about “An Unforgettable Nat King Cole Christmas” starring Evan Tyrone Martin? Sure. At the Freedom Hall in Park Forest on Dec. 3, the Elgin Arts Center Dec. 6 and the Mercury Theater Dec. 7-8. Fancy Heidi Kettenring performing the Christmas songs of Karen Carpenter? Lovely. Also at the Mercury, on several dates during the upcoming holiday season.

All of these events are the work of Michael and Angela Ingersoll, a pair of Skokie residents who are running an independent, husband-and-wife booking agency out of their home and who are determined to raise the profile of Chicago’s musical-theater professionals. Nothing quite like this has happened here before.

The endeavor, known as the Artists Lounge, was born out of the desire of two frustrated Midwestern actors to take control of their own lives and careers, and do the same for the other Chicago professionals they admire.

“We want to put a spotlight on these performers,” Michael Ingersoll says. “And we want to create our own work and not always be dependent on the hierarchies at all the theaters. I felt like I had reached the end of the part of my life where I was willing to ask for permission to get my next job.”

Ingersoll’s most prominent previous job was playing the role of Nick Massi in the Chicago production of “Jersey Boys" between 2008 and 2010, which in turn led to him becoming part of a doo-wop group called Under the Streetlamp, which performed songs by the Four Seasons and other bands of the era. Angela Ingersoll, Michael’s wife, has become well known for performing the songs of Judy Garland.

The Artists Lounge has a formula. Job one is matching the body of work of an iconic singer like Carpenter with the right performer. Thereafter, the Ingersolls work with their star to develop material — background information about the songs, anecdotes, patter, historical context, personal stories about what this catalog has meant to the singer.

They have to stay clear of actually impersonating the subject, in the style of the many jukebox musicals on Broadway, as that would require a costly and likely impossible set of permissions, involving so-called “grand rights” to a life story. But you don’t need to worry about all that if you just are performing a set of songs that can be licensed through ASCAP and you merely are telling the story of a famous singer.

“We do our research,” Angela Ingersoll said, “and then we mock up a script and a story.”

Once the show is developed, the Ingersolls make the deal with the venue, sometimes for a guaranteed fee, sometimes with a split of the box-office. They book a band from their roster of some 80 Chicago musicians. And, in some cases, they find back-up singers. Then they go to work to, as Michael Ingersoll puts it, to “get some butts in the seats.”

The Ingersolls see what they are doing as a win-win. A theater like the Mercury on Southport Avenue gets a revenue-producing show which they can slot between their mainstage productions when their space would otherwise be dark. Front-of-house staff get work. The bar buzzes. And, of course, the theater gets new people through the door, allowing them to capture their personal information.

But the main beneficiary surely is the performer: the likes of Kettenring and Mahler are far better, I’m here to tell you, than their current level of national fame would suggest, so this represents a valuable opportunity. Perhaps more importantly, the solo structure of the Ingersolls’ operation allows them to pay these performers far more than they would get at one of the non-profit houses in Chicago, even if they were doing a leading role eight times a week. This can be what allows an actor to make a mortgage payment.

This kind of storytelling-concert hybrid is not uncommon with Broadway stars, who often find themselves doing shows on cruise ships or for private events. But in the past, this lucrative avenue generally has not been open to Chicago-based performers, who often have struggled to raise their profile to a level that would attract an audience. In essence, the Ingersolls have come up with a plan that uses a famous singer to get people through the door, and then relies on their roster of top-drawer Chicago talent to give people a good time.

Operations are expanding beyond Chicago: Martin, for example, is touring his show to the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, playing a theater for which it would be tough for a Chicago performer even to snag an audition. And once he’s there, Martin gets to be the center of his own show.

“There is no team of outside people between them and the audience,” Angela Ingersoll says.

“And we are able to remunerate these Chicago artists commensurate with the time and work they have put into their craft,” Michael Ingersoll says.

Rock — or maybe croon — on. Chicago has to make more of its own stars.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.


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