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Theater’s success story of Paramount importance

Understudy David Girolmo took stage opening night brilliant turn as Tevye “Fiddler Roof” Paramount Theatre Aurora. | Phoby Liz Lauren

Understudy David Girolmo took to the stage opening night in a brilliant turn as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora. | Photo by Liz Lauren

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Updated: May 8, 2013 6:42AM

Oh the drama … the romance … the humanity…

And I’m not talking about the recently-completed Broadway season on the stage of the Paramount Theatre.

Ask Artistic Director Jim Corti, and he’ll tell you there were lots of behind-the-scenes storylines that would make for a great show or two. When you work that closely on something so big, so special, there’s bound to be an array of emotions, philosophical discussions, moments of introspection and plenty of chances for the actors to “find their own humanity.”

“They come away changed forever,” Corti says of the cast and crew.

But the real story here is what happened on stage when the curtains came up. Both Corti and Executive Director Tim Rater are ramped as they look back on a season so successful that what’s going on in downtown Aurora is becoming quite the buzz in the entertainment world.

At a time when theaters across the nation are bemoaning falling subscriber numbers, the Paramount is pulling in figures that demand a standing ovation. For the 2011-2012 year there were 12,500 subscribers, with 87,000 people attending 96 Broadway season performances. Total attendance for the year: 160,000. For 2012-2013, there were 19,815 subscribers with 126,000 attending 117 shows, with total attendance over 200,000.

It’s no wonder The Paramount is quickly earning a reputation as the best theater in Chicago. In fact, Rater says other venues are starting to copy this recipe for success, and there have even been inquiries about taking these Aurora productions on the road.

What’s not to envy? As a subscriber these past two years, I can attest to the Paramount’s trifecta: great productions, great value and great customer service.

“We’re learning how to do it,” says Rater. ‘We’re doing something right ... not just for this theater, but for the entire community.”

The Paramount has long been one of Aurora’s gems. But its glow is growing more spectacular, and certainly its reaching further these days. Rater says 85 percent of the more than 200,000 attendees are coming from outside the city. And that is exciting news for this river town as it begins a major rebranding effort.

As Rater points out, “when you’re doing 200 shows a year, it’s going to impact the local economy.”

In addition, the theater is also giving back to this community, with thousands of complimentary tickets going to not for profits. Corti, in fact, has become such a fan of the city and its people, he’s even moved to downtown Aurora.

“I love everything about this place,” he says with the kind of enthusiasm that makes you want to stand up and applaud.

Always surprises

Looking back on the year, Rater says there were dozens of highlights, and always a few surprises. December’s “Annie,” which was a delightful alternative to traditional holiday fare like “The Nutcracker” and “A Christmas Carol,” was by far the biggest hit; with “Grease” struggling more than expected. On the other hand, the rest of the shows did better than he’d hoped, with an average of 1,200 seats filled for each performance.

Because it’s live theater, there were also not-so-welcome surprises. Like the “Grease” car malfunction that forced actors to literally push it across the stage; the large sign in “Music Man” that came unhinged; the thermostat problem in the orchestra pit that created some chilling moments; and the desperate search to find a prop for “Annie” that resulted in a last minute FedEx shipment from out of state.

“Who would have thought,” said Rater with a chuckle, “that a fake switchblade would be so hard to find?”

And who have thought Peter Kevoian, scheduled to play Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” would get sick right before opening night, and be unable to return until six performances later? Happily, as those can attest who were in the audience during the first half-dozen shows, understudy David Girolmo performed spectacularly.

There may be lots of jealousy, backstabbing and diva moments on Broadway, says 64-year-old Corti, who has spent half his career in New York’s big productions. But in regional theater like this, the support and bonding that takes place, well, that’s a story in itself.

Cast and crew make lifelong friends, he and Rater agree, and some even altered plans to head to New York because of the experience right here in downtown Aurora.

This Broadway season has, indeed, been a game changer. But even though the curtain has dropped on this second season, the Paramount folks are already pushing forward with the next series. As proud as they are of each production, “the best show,” says Corti, “is the one I’m working on.”

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