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Are the premium seats worth the price?

Out for a summer family afternoon on Navy Pier the other day, I was clutching my favorite coupon book. Found in the schedule racks at downtown stations, the free Metra booklets feature a plethora of big discounts for boats, observation decks, rental bikes, museums and other attractions. Never head to Navy Pier without one.

One offer includes a seemingly nice discount for "Cirque Shanghai: Year of the Dragon," the annual summer Chinese acrobat show on Navy Pier. But you have to buy the "Emperor's Circle" premium seats. Huh, I thought. I've seen that show enough times to know it doesn't matter where you sit — I'd argue the better seats actually are farther back. You'd be better off skipping the discount and buying the cheaper seats.

But is that true everywhere?

No. Let's take "La Soiree," the fine, and very adult, boudoir circus at the Riverfront Theater. In this instance, I'd pony up for the more expensive seats near the tiny ring. At last weekend's opening, these were the folks who were having the best time, as proximity to the various glistening bodies doing athletic things is very much a part of this show's appeal and atmosphere. The people at the back were straining to feel part of the same experience, because the show is not scaled as big as the tent in which it is being presented. (Tribune Co., which publishes this newspaper, is a full, revenue-sharing producing partner with the Riverfront Theater). It's worth the price for the better seats.

So how do you know what decision to make? When to buy the more expensive seats — a practice known as "scaling" in the business — is a dilemma faced by theatergoers, except those for whom money is no object. Sometimes, of course, your budget makes the choice for you. All my formative theater-going experiences took place from the cheapest seats. And some of this is a matter of personal taste. But let's try and make some general observations.

In the big downtown venues, you're generally better on the main floor, even if that means on the sides or at the back. That's my preference at the Chicago Theatre, which actually has good sightlines from the sides because of the very large stage. The tops of sets can be cut off at venues like the Bank of America Theatre if you're too high up in the balcony, yet I wouldn't pay a premium for the front rows at that theater (where "Book of Mormon" will play in December). Anywhere on the main floor is just fine. I'm not a big fan of the isolated, boxlike seats you'll find at the Cadillac Palace or Oriental Theatre — which offer decent views and an elegant perch but set you apart from the masses. Stick yourself in the mid to rear of the main floor, I say, in the middle of all the action.

The Steppenwolf mainstage and Goodman's Albert Theatre or Royal George Theatre main floors also offer excellent seats, although I do think it's worth the expense to avoid all three of those balconies. I think the otherwise-wonderful Goodman space has a few main-floor seats that are too close for an ideal experience.

If you're going to "Million Dollar Quartet" at the Apollo Theatre, don't pay more for top seats; the show works from all angles. Ditto at "Blue Man Group," where you can protect your eardrums by sitting farther back. And at the Broadway Playhouse, where "I Love Lucy: Live on Stage" is opening this fall, there is very little difference among the seats. The back of the house is fine.

You can sit anywhere at Lookingglass Theatre (seating configurations vary), the Biograph Theatre (seats at the back are just fine and really not far away), Court Theatre (it's all the same there) and the Northlight Theatre (where the sides offer good views). At Chicago Shakespeare's Courtyard Theater, the cheaper balcony seats are fine as long as they are not far down the sides, where the combination of height and the side view can be limiting.

The Marriott in Lincolnshire and the Drury Lane in Oakbrook Terrace both price all their seats the same (as do most storefront theaters in Chicago), which makes sense. The Paramount Theatre in Aurora is a very deep room; you're better off toward the front, even if that means being on the side. And I'm fond of the seats at the Auditorium Theatre, where the main floor rises on a steep rake — the views there are excellent, even from the sides.

Sometimes you'll encounter price difference based on days of the week, which seems like a no-brainer. But consider this: The game is raised for the actors on a Saturday night.

Of course, how you buy these seats is just as significant as where you sit. All the various deals forums are fodder for another column. But you're always better off seeing a great show from lousy seats than a lousy show from great seats. You'd be surprised how many people forget that incontrovertible truth.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@chrisjonestrib

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