The landscape of suburban musical theater in Chicagoland is changing. Drastically. The arrival of self-produced musicals at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora, hitherto mostly the province of low-end tours, music and variety acts, has changed everything. One need only head out and see the new production there of "Miss Saigon" to understand what I mean.
When you consider that this theater has been in business as a producer of shows for a only couple of seasons, this really is a breathtaking achievement. It's not so much the quality of the performers, although to see Joseph Anthony Foronda return with such freshness and ferocity to the role of The Engineer, a role he played hundreds of times in the national tour of the original production when a younger man, is entirely worth a contribution to the coffers of the Illinois Tollway Authority. The revelation, ongoing, is the way Chicago designers can respond when given a huge stage like that of the Paramount.
Linda Buchanan's setting for this show is inspired indeed. And although it hardly is news to note the quality of the video projections by Mike Tutaj, a man who has a huge influence on Chicago theaters large and small, the Paramount has allowed Tutaj to blow up his ideas on a massive scale. I enjoyed the Broadway tour of "Once Upon a Dream Starring the Rascals" (which you could also see this weekend and that features a great American band), but the video work in that piece is not close to what you can see from Tutaj at the Paramount. Nor, for the record, is Tutaj's own disappointing work for "Mary Poppins" at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, which is a reminder that even huge talents can, and do, totally blow it on occasion.
One lesson in this show for the Paramount is that design — reconceptualization, you might say — should be a big part of its brand, along with that full orchestra in the pit. The Paramount made a mistake with its last production, of "In the Heights," when it decided to rent the set from the last tour, a set that then made its way to a local high school. That set, which was a diminishment of the Broadway set, with the scale reduced so much the design no longer worked, essentially pushed director Rachel Rockwell into a staging far too close to the original to really feel distinctive, and it certainly did not feel spectacular, as should have been the case.
Thankfully, Paramount started over with "Miss Saigon," and the benefits are, well, go and see for yourself. May they never rent another set there.
Observations about which suburban theaters are up or down are not that useful. After all, the same Equity actors work at the Marriott, Drury Lane, the Paramount and at Theatre in the Center in Munster, Ind., also an important theater. All four are crucial in building the casting pool here, as is the Mercury Theater in Chicago.
The Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire has a distinguished history and a huge subscription base. I've seen many fine productions there. But this theater has seen the quality of the work at its competitors increase in quality and number, first at Drury Lane and now at the Paramount. Both of those theaters are mulling plans to get involved with the development of new musicals, another crucial part of Chicago's theater ecosystem and an important way for actors to break out nationally. That has been one of the Marriott's signatures.
The market in suburban Chicago is large and segmented, and theaters like the Marriott have built enormous loyalty. The Marriott, which is a for-profit venture, unlike the Paramount, will be fine. But there is real competition for titles, actors and audiences. It was the Marriott that snagged the rights for the first local production of "Mary Poppins," who does not fly in Lincolnshire. The leaders of the Marriott should take the rise of the Paramount as a moment of self-examination, a chance to raise its game. Marriott is no longer the big dog with underlings nipping at its heels. And that should be good for everyone, including the Marriott.
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