Marriott Theatre: 35 and Still Going Strong

Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire has more subscriptions than any regional musical theater in the country.

That’s reason enough for the nearly 900-seat arena theater on Milwaukee Avenue to celebrate, but there is another one: This year marks the theater’s 35th anniversary, during which about 9 million people have seen one of their shows.

This tenacious, successful theater was actually supposed to be one of many similar theaters in Marriott resorts throughout the country, but that never happened.

“There was an original idea that each Marriott resort would have a theater,” says executive producer Terry James, when asked about the history of the venue, which brings Broadway shows and new productions to Lincolnshire. “We were to be the first, but in fact, we are the only one. We are unique.”

Unique indeed. The theater started in 1975 doing straight dramas and comedies with such stars as Cloris Leachman, Eve Arden and Jack Cassidy. In 1979, however, producer Kary Walker changed to the current format of all musicals, all the time.

“Kary was producer until 2000,” says James, who, like many an arts manager, began his life in the theater as an actor. In fact, in 1982 James appeared in “Fiddler on the Roof” at Marriott in the role of Fyedko, the Russian Gentile who marries Tevye’s favorite daughter. The director was David Bell.

“I was supposed to be a blond dancer,” James says, laughing. “But I have dark hair, and I don’t dance.”

That was the last time the multiple Tony-winning 1964 hit by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick was performed at the Marriott.

“By coincidence, the first show in the theater’s 35th anniversary year is ‘Fiddler,’ and Bell is directing this one, too,'” says James, who for 10 years served as associate director.

Another unique feature: in-the-round staging. The shape of the stage presents what James diplomatically calls “challenges.” With no walls, for example, nothing can be flat.

The stage is simply a 28-by-28-foot cement slab, with actors entering and exiting through the aisles, so sets must be minimal and moveable.

“The idea is to suggest a location,” James explains. “The human mind always fills in the blank spaces.”

As for costumes, Marriott has its own star seamstress, Nancy Missimi, whose golden needle has won her so many Jeff Awards for costume design that she has lost count.

“All our costumes are hand-made,” James says, “because we can’t fool anybody. They have to be good and they have to fit properly.”

Fit properly, yes, and yet be strong and flexible enough to endure the wear and tear of eight performances a week for nine weeks by actors and the perennial corps of dancers, who light up that square slab as if it were Radio City Music Hall.

The theater presents five shows a season and the schedule is tight. One closes on Sunday, and the next opens on Wednesday.

As executive director of a for-profit theater, James does not have to worry about fund-raising nor, apparently, about orders from on high.

“We have a $10 million annual budget,” he says, “and corporate has never, ever dictated what we put on stage.”

He does, however, consult with other musical theaters in the area so as not to repeat the series of unfortunate events of 1985 when from June to October Marriott, Candlelight and Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace all presented “A Chorus Line.” And, to make it worse, the movie of the Broadway show was released that year.

“People ask us if there is rivalry between theaters here,” James says. “I don’t think so. The theater community is very small. Many of us have worked together for years, and we respect each other.

“The more people going to live theater, the more people will be coming to the Marriott,” he continues. Then adds with a smile: “And we have free parking.”