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Hit Parade 

While other musical theater presenters are complaining about a downturn in ticket sales, the Marriot Theatre in Lincolnshire is packing 'em in. What's their secret?

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I made a mistake on my way to Peter Pan at the Marriott Theatre. By way of introducing the story of Wendy and the Lost Boys to a carload of virgin viewers (ages three to eight), I hummed a bit of what I thought they were going to hear: a bar or two of "I've Gotta Crow" and the opening of "Never Never Land." When we got there I realized I'd led them astray. What we were seeing was not, as I'd assumed, the Broadway musical, but a one-act take on J.M. Barrie's tale by local choreographer, composer, and playwright Marc Robin, who also directed it. The kids didn't care. They didn't know the great music they were missing, and what was there suited them perfectly: a brisk but fully fleshed-out romp with Equity actors, a trio of musicians, and professional costumes, lighting, and special effects that included some circumscribed but satisfactory flying. Having sat through a kids' production of the lengthy Broadway show (complete with riotous intermission) a month earlier, I had to admire the well-oiled effectiveness of this one. I wondered if Marriott had commissioned it.

It turned out to be one of a catalog of classics adapted by Robin for kids. In 13 years as resident director and choreographer at Drury Lane Theatre in Evergreen Park, he's produced hour-long versions of a dozen stories, including this one (written ten years ago) and The Little Mermaid, which will be the spring offering at Marriott's Theatre for Young Audiences. Like the main-stage series, Marriott kids' theater (started in 1988) is booming, expanding this year from an established base of mostly weekday school-group shows into summer and weekend slots that draw families. "There were such enormous single-ticket sales," says artistic director Rick Boynton. "We were doing 100 tickets in the hour before a ten o'clock show. We thought, with this demand, we'd try one during the summer." Cinderella ran Friday through Monday for five weeks over the summer, and Peter Pan, which opened in October, will run through December 29--a month longer than last year's Theatre for Young Audiences fall play. The series now offers three shows annually, sells out nearly every performance, and turns a nice profit at a mere $8 per ticket. That might sound like so much fairy dust, but this is a volume business. Marriott's deceptively intimate theater-in-the-round has a healthy 882 seats. Last year the children's series sold 85,000 tickets.

Marriott executive producer Terry James says the theater's Lincolnshire location, once a liability, is an asset now that surrounding suburbs have filled in. A 20-year veteran "in one capacity or another," James recalls that when he first came to Lincolnshire, "we were surrounded by fields." The hotel and theater, which are owned by privately held Strategic Hotel Capital and managed by Marriott, were built in 1975 on land owned by Tony De Santis (who now owns Drury Lane Oakbrook). "De Santis told Mr. Marriott, 'You should open a theater here,'" James says, and Marriott, looking for an attraction besides the golf course, did. It's the only theater in the Marriott empire. James says the initial shows were "parlor comedies" featuring TV personalities; when longtime executive producer Kary Walker arrived in 1979, he set the all-musical agenda they've stuck with ever since. The subscription program (now a five-show season) started in 1982 and has grown to be the most successful in the country. Last year there were over 37,000 full-season ticket holders, and the main-stage series sold 360,000 tickets. During 2002, says Boynton, "We sold our six millionth main-stage ticket."

According to James, the kids' shows bring in roughly 15 percent of the theater's business. Next year's main-stage subscription campaign, now in its final stages, is running ahead of last year and is expected to sell out. "We belong to the National Alliance for Musical Theatre," Boynton says, "and I've heard a lot of stories about how the economic downturn has affected everyone. A lot of theaters are suffering. God love it, we haven't experienced that." In January, Marriott will open another likely sure thing: the first regional production of Cats (retooled by Andrew Lloyd Webber for regional licensing), with a cast of 26 and a ten-member orchestra.

Robin's got a few things to crow about himself. Two years ago he gave up his full-time status at Drury Lane in order to freelance. Now he's got an opening a month for the first five months of next year, starting with Cats, which he'll direct. He'll also direct Snow White (at Drury Lane in February), Singin' in the Rain (Drury Lane, March), and My Fair Lady (at the Fulton Opera House in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in May). He's also choreographing A Long Gay Book, a new play directed by Frank Galati and opening in April at Northwestern University. When he sits down to write again, he says it's likely to be something for adults. His version of Treasure Island, which he chose to shut down rather than change at Drury Lane in 1998 after some parents objected that it was too strong for kids, is now a two-act main-stage musical, to be performed at Fulton Opera next year. Back then Robin said Treasure Island was getting a bum rap: it was just a coincidence that a child in the audience vomited at a crucial moment in the plot.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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