It’s hard not to catch the excitement of what’s going on at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora.
In just its second season of offering a Broadway Series — a compilation of four professionally produced musicals based on Broadway classics — the historical theater has seen a huge spike in subscribers, received a renewed audience appreciation for musical theater and created an intoxicating sense of impending greatness felt by directors and audience members alike.
Simply put, the theater is intentionally working its way toward becoming one of the biggest names in the industry.
“We believe we’re creating the best musical theater in Chicago,” says Tim Rater, president and chief executive officer of the Paramount.
From movie palace to Broadway In 1931, the Paramount Theatre opened as a nearly 2,000-seat palace showing first-run movies. For trivia lovers: it was the first movie palace outside of Chicago that had air conditioning, Rater says.
In the 1950s and ’60s, the theater fell into disarray, but a decade later its Venetian-style decor was restored and the Paramount reopened as a live performance venue. In 2006, it received a facelift with a new grand lobby and art gallery, but the theater itself — located on Stolp Island in downtown Aurora — retains its historic look and feel, from the massive sea of burgundy seats and ornate ceiling design inside to the grand marquee outside. In fact, the Paramount has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1980.
Today, it has come alive again, this time as a venue for comedy tours, classic movie Mondays, A-list musical acts and, of course, the Broadway Series.
“When I got here, one of the first things I found was this community really supports the Paramount,” says Rater, who took over two years ago. “There’s a true affection for the Paramount. There’s a history of supporting shows here.”
The vibrant anchor of the Paramount’s success is its dedication to bringing good shows and entertainment to the area, Rater says. And this season, the number of good shows is skyrocketing. Rater’s No. 1 priority was to bring in new activity to the Paramount, and the numbers don’t belie his intent. Last season, the theater offered roughly 175 performances to audiences. This year, it’s hovering close to 175 again, with 117 performances coming from the Broadway Series.
The biggest difference between the inaugural Broadway Series and this season is that instead of offering just three or four showtimes for each musical, each play has expanded to include three to six weeks of performances, scheduled Wednesday through Sunday, Rater says.
And these aren’t mom and pop plays, he notes. They’re original productions - with a professional director, union actors and a full, live orchestra providing a one-of-a-kind experience — of Tony Award-winning shows that have seen significant time, and success, on Broadway.
“[In] the Broadway Series, all the shows have had a presence on Broadway,” Rater says. “[They’re] classics that have been followed sometimes for generations.”
Last year’s successful Broadway Series featured “My Fair Lady,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “A Chorus Line” and “Hair.” Nearly 12,500 subscribers — those who purchased tickets to all four shows at a significantly reduced rate — witnessed the Paramount’s first venture into Broadway. This season, the series has experienced a 90 percent renewal rate in subscriber sales, plus additional growth, with more than 19,000 subscribers grabbing up tickets, Rater says.
The Paramount just finished its opening musical, “Grease,” and opened “Annie” on Nov. 21, which will run through the end of the year. The remaining two plays — “The Music Man” and “Fiddler on the Roof” — will conclude the family-friendly series in 2013.
Besides the appeal of traditional Broadway, the Paramount offers something else to local patrons — great location and affordable prices.
“It’s become immensely difficult to afford Chicago downtown theater,” Rater says. “I personally find it a little daunting to go downtown for theater. Here at the Paramount, you can see a show that critics agree are just as good or better, as cheap as $20.”
Single ticket prices at the Paramount range from $34.90 to $46.90 for Broadway plays, but subscribers receive 40 to 50 percent off those prices. Plus, free parking lots are available for shows, free street parking is available in the evenings, and dining and entertainment — including Hollywood Casino — is just around the corner.
Still, beyond those perks, what people seem to appreciate most is the caliber of production they’re able to view at such a close-to-home venue.
“The shows we’re doing, people have seen before — these are classic shows,” Rater says, noting that many have pre-conceived notions of how they’ll like a Paramount live performance. “I’ve had people say … ‘I didn’t particularly like “My Fair Lady.”’ They came, and they loved the show [we put on].
“We make believers out of them.”
“Annie” And Beyond For weeks leading up to opening night in late November, artistic director Jim Corti, Rater and countless others prepared for the opening of “Annie.”
Even while costumes were still being made, the stage still being built, Rater predicted the success of the second Broadway performance in the 2012-13 season.
“The shows just keep getting better,” Rater says. “‘Annie’ is shaping up to be the best performance we’ve offered yet.”
The traditional storyline of a little girl faced with enormous challenges as she searches for a family to love her is one that audiences may have seen before, but they can now witness it through new eyes. “It’s a story a lot of people can relate to,” Rater says. “You may have had a difficult childhood; you may have known of someone else who had a difficult childhood. [You] can relate with Annie … and how a man’s heart can be changed by the love of a little girl.”
Showgoers will be presented with an adorable Annie and stern Daddy Warbucks, albeit not a curly-top redhead and bald businessman, as they may be accustomed to seeing.
“I think folks will be a little bit surprised,” Rater says. “This is OUR production of ‘Annie,’ perhaps a more honest, heartwarming show.”
Under the direction of Jim Corti — a Jeff Award winner for his acting, directing and choreography — the professionals in “Annie” and the other Broadway productions are experiencing a life-changing opportunity, he says.
“[We’re able] to bring all these people together and do the best work of their careers here … because of the uniqueness of the Paramount venue,” Corti says. “It’s a rare national opportunity for anyone. Its size and its beauty, there’s nothing to compare to it. And people can’t believe how successful it’s been since the first show opened.”
Corti’s enthusiasm isn’t one-sided, however. Audiences are catching onto the excitement, too.
“I think there’s a great wealth in musical theater content,” he says. “People get a story enhanced by great music and great theatrical performances. We have an amazing log of emails and handwritten letters, voicemails from people that have to say thank you, have to say keep it up, have to say we can’t wait to see the next one, and I think that’s what theater was meant to do. It’s an enhancement to our lives.”
Rater agrees, predicting that with the Paramount’s success thus far, and his and Corti’s vision for the future, the theater soon will become the largest musical theater in the Chicago area, including the city itself. And then it will have opportunities many venues can only dream of — creating original musicals that will then be seen on Broadway, he says.
“It’s only a matter of time before we’re making our own impact on new creative work,” Rater says. “If you take an idea that has merit and surround it by people who are going to nurture it, love it and are capable of doing that, I don’t see why we can’t do that.” kc