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THEATER When growth is paramount: Jim Corti helps fuel Aurora theater expansion
by Scott C. Morgan
2024-03-01

This article shared 14100 times since Fri Mar 1, 2024
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Out actor/director/choreographer Jim Corti made his Broadway debut in 1974, in the ensemble of Leonard Bernstein's musical Candide. Director Harold Prince's acclaimed Tony Award-winning revival is often cited as a textbook example of an "environmental" staging, having featured actors and musicians popping up throughout a series of ramps, platforms and audience seating areas within the then-gutted Broadway Theatre.

Now, 50 years later, as the artistic director of the Paramount Theatre in Aurora, Corti will help oversee the summer opening of the new 98-seat Stolp Island Theatre. The former Fox River-facing office space will open as a flexible theater with a revival of the hit jukebox musical Million Dollar Quartet. But don't quite call it an "environmental" staging.

"'Environmental' is one way to look at it," Corti said. "But I think we're calling this inaugural production an 'Experience.'"

Million Dollar Quartet re-imagines the legendary recording session when Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins teamed up in Memphis on Dec. 4, 1956. Though Corti previously directed Million Dollar Quaret at the 1,834-seat Paramount in 2017, he said this summer's revival will be more far intimate, with the audience seated within the recording studio of Sun Records.

Corti said the Stolp Island Theatre "will morph into however the experience it's configured and conceptualized to be. Where the audience sits will always change, and the performance areas will always change."

The flexible Stolp Island Theatre is being added to the roster of entertainment venues run by the Aurora Civic Center Authority. With an annual budget of around $30 million, this non-profit organization already operates the 1931 art deco Paramount Theatre, the RiverEdge Park which hosts outdoor concerts and festivals, and the renovated 165-seat Copley Theatre which launched in 2022 with a separate subscription BOLD Series of intimate plays and musicals.

"We're expanding because we can, and we have an audience that wants it," Corti said. "What we're doing differently from anyone else? I cannot tell you. That's just the plain fact that people are loving just coming to the theater."

Corti and Paramount Theatre President and CEO Tim Rater were the masterminds behind the hugely successful decision to create a homegrown Aurora season of professional Broadway caliber musicals starting in 2011. In subsequent seasons, the runs of each Paramount musical kept on expanding from three weeks to seven.

For example, the Paramount's next season features the regional premieres of the hit Broadway musicals Waitress and Frozen. The hugely popular Disney stage adaptation of the 2013 animated blockbuster will run even longer, for 12 weeks around the holidays.

The Paramount Theatre has also racked up an impressive number of Jeff Awards since it became eligible for the Chicago-area live theater awards in 2015. Corti has won three directing awards for the Paramount, while the company itself won Best Musical for a large theater four times for Les Miserables (2015), West Side Story (2016), Sweeney Todd (2017) and Kinky Boots (2022).

Though a New Jersey native with several Broadway and national touring credits, Chicago has been central to Corti's theater career. In addition to his schooling at Loyola University, Corti kept returning to the Chicago area to act in, choreograph and direct many professional productions.

Corti permanently settled in the area in 2008, and was suggested to Rater as a contender for the Paramount Theatre's artistic director job in 2010. Rater remembers the first time Corti saw the expanse of the Paramount, and his very mixed feelings of awe and terror.

"(Corti) was properly scared of the task [of filling] the stage with something that would resonate with everyone in this large, beautiful, historic theater," Rater said. "From that moment, I knew he was the right guy, because he was afraid of the job. He just knew how hard it was going to be."

Rater proudly mentioned that, in 2023, the Paramount became the largest subscription-based theater in the nation with 36,823 subscribers. He and Corti credit that to Chicago-area audiences who were willing to come back in force following the COVID-19 shutdown.

Corti is currently in the midst of rehearsals for A Streetcar Named Desire at the Copley Theatre. While the 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by Tennessee Williams is unquestionably an American theater classic, it's something of an outlier. So far, every other BOLD series show has been a contemporary play or musical written within the past two decades.

But A Streetcar Named Desire fits in with a recent Paramount Theatre trend of Corti increasingly sharing co-directing duties with other Chicago-area theater artists. For example, A Streetcar Named Desire is being co-directed by Elizabeth Swanson, the former artistic director of Bohemian Theatre Ensemble. The Paramount's upcoming spring run of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical also features Johanna McKenzie Miller as co-director.

"I've felt that I've got to bring new directors to the company," Corti said. "I'm also enjoying the collaboration, and why not share the credit? I'm stressing that this is a team effort."

A Streetcar Named Desire was initially announced for the Paramount's first BOLD series season, but the pandemic forced it to be pushed back until now. But another Paramount pandemic casualty with deep ties to Corti has yet to reemerge: Ragtime. This epic Broadway musical was initially announced for the 2020-21season, but has not been programmed for future Paramount seasons.

As an actor, Corti notably created the role of legendary escapologist Harry Houdini in Ragtime for both its 1996 Toronto world premiere and its 1998 Broadway bow. Corti also starred as Tatah in the scaled-down national tour of Ragtime.

According to Corti and Rater, they're waiting for the right time for the Paramount to produce Ragtime. Not only is it a difficult work in terms of its emotionally challenging material, Corti feels that Ragtime requires a big budget.

"I don't think there's a way to do a minimal production of Ragtime," Corti said. "It's a very large cast and epic scenically, and I think that's what had us considering putting it aside."

Corti also made a one-night-only return to Broadway last year with other original cast members for a Ragtime Reunion Concert. It functioned as both a celebration of the musical's 25th anniversary, and as a benefit for The Entertainment Community Fund (formerly The Actors Fund).

"We were on tape the very minute we walked into the very first rehearsal and the tape did not stop rolling until we left the theater the night of the concert," said Corti, who returned to portray Houdini. "We did not know about the documentary until we arrived, and we had to sign a waiver."

Last month, it was announced that the Ragtime Reunion Concert would be screened in select movie theaters on March 13 and 17. But then it was pulled from cinema schedules, even though tickets had briefly gone on sale.

Corti did not know why this happened, nor was he sure if it was just a screening of the concert or a documentary about the concert.

"It's not like it's been canceled. It's just been delayed, from my understanding." Corti said. "I imagine it's just the complexity of the production of it."

A Streetcar Named Desire begins previews March 13, with press openings on March 20 and 21 at the Paramount's Copley Theatre, 8 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora. The run continues through April 21. Tickets are $40-$55. Subscriptions for the 2024-25 season for the Paramount Theatre (The Full Monty, Frozen, Waitress and Cats), and the BOLD Series (Peter and the Starcatcher, An Act of God and The 25th Annual Putnum County Spelling Bee) are on sale now. The new Stolp Island Theatre at 5 E. Downer Pl. in Aurora is slated to open in summer 2024 with an open run of Million Dollar Quartet. For more information, call 630-896-6666 or ParamountAurora.com .


This article shared 14100 times since Fri Mar 1, 2024
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