The Music of Something Beginning The Regeneration of Chicago’s Drury Lane Theatre
Renaissance. It’s a term one hears a lot lately on the subject of the Drury Lane Theatre, along with Legacy and, perhaps most especially, Family. At a time when theater in general, and regional theater in particular, faces innumerable challenges, this third generation, family-owned venue in the Chicago suburb of Oakbrook Terrace is not just surviving but thriving.
Tony DeSantis was born in Gary, Indiana in 1914. His earliest brush with show business was as a trumpet player in Chicago in the 1930s. In 1940, he purchased a club on Michigan Avenue and, in 1949, opened a restaurant, the Martinique, in suburban Evergreen Park. That summer, a couple of guys asked if they could pitch a tent in the parking lot and, in the spirit of a Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney musical, put on a show. Although DeSantis initially viewed the addition of an open-air playhouse merely as a means to entice customers to the restaurant and bar (where the real money was), nine years later, in 1958, he built his first theater, the Drury Lane Evergreen Park.
“Tony was a guy who figured out really early on that you could attract people and make money by feeding them and entertaining them and not necessarily requiring them to go downtown, and keeping the prices reasonable and providing lots of free parking,” explains Chris Jones, chief theater critic for the Chicago Tribune. DeSantis’s goal, he adds, was to create a “glamorous experience” for patrons, as evidenced by the opulent Strauss crystal chandeliers that are still a Drury Lane signature. Over the next five decades, he became a renowned figure on the Chicagoland entertainment scene, opening four more Drury Lanes and staging over 2,000 productions. With the announcement on April 6, 2010 that the DeSantis family would release the lease on downtown’s Drury Lane Theatre at Water Tower Place, the 971-seat Oakbrook location became the last one standing.
Family-friendly fare, often starring once-somewhat-brighter lights of stage and screen, filled the 23 years following the Oakbrook theater’s debut in 1984. Among the featured performers were many best known to mature audiences: Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, Pearl Bailey, Robert Goulet and, yes, even Mickey Rooney, putting on another show. Still, DeSantis, along with his daughter Diane (Chi Chi) Van Lente, who worked backstage at her father’s theaters from the age of nine and eventually served as executive producer, built a large, multigenerational audience.
But in the years leading up to 2007, the Drury Lane faced challenges to its bottom line. “In a bid to contain costs, [it] has veered away from a schedule of splashy vintage musicals… and presented cheaper comedies and mysteries,” wrote H. Lee Murphy in his article, “Drury Lane Looks to Stage a Revival.” Seasonal subscriptions, which had peaked at 25,000 a decade earlier, fell to 17,000 after September 11, 2001, before settling in at 20,000. With the deaths of both DeSantis, at 93, and Van Lente, 57, in the summer of 2007, “There was a lot of worry in town that the whole thing would just go away,” says Jones. “Many similar theaters, commercial musical houses, had been dropping like flies.”
But, in fact, that’s not what happened. Enter Kyle DeSantis, then 28, the oldest of the five grandchildren. As he tells it, when he was a child the Drury Lane “was like a big playground” where he was “able to run around on stage;” as a teen, he began to learn the family business, first selling tickets in the box office, then graduating to theater production, sales, marketing, and food and beverage. The current revival of “Ragtime” marks his 18th production as executive producer.
Engagingly self-effacing, the younger DeSantis, now 31, exhibits a quiet clarity when discussing his role and responsibilities. “I have tremendous respect for my grandfather and my aunt. Part of my job, as was theirs, is to try and find ways to cultivate a new audience, keep the existing audience, and keep things fresh and exciting.” To that end, he and his producing partners, brother Drew DeSantis, 26, sister Abby DeSantis, 27, and cousin Jason Van Lente, 31, have made a substantial financial commitment to the Drury Lane’s future.
Significant increases to production budgets have allowed them to modernize the look of the stage, enhance scenic design, add more players to the orchestra pit, secure better costuming, and cast with, as Jones says, “a real eye to excellence,” drawing from both “the very talented, vibrant Chicago theater community” and “a national casting pool.” “Ragtime” has a company of 33 actors, the largest in Drury Lane’s history, including both the lead and understudy from the recent Broadway revival in the pivotal roles of Coalhouse Walker and Sarah, as well as “formidable” Chicago performers in key parts. It also uses the Tony Award-winning Santo Loquasto costumes from the original Broadway production. In addition, Kyle DeSantis and Bill Osetek, the Drury Lane’s share a vision that includes incorporating more contemporary, relevant titles into the slate of five musicals produced each season.
The investment is working. Last season’s rapturously reviewed revival of “Cabaret,” a show DeSantis was told “we could never do… it would be too offensive to our audience” succeeded in attracting enthusiastic younger theatergoers as well as appealing to the older core group on which the Drury Lane relies. “I think maybe it’s because I’m young and more apt to take a risk, but I looked at the situation as… we don’t really know what our audience can handle unless we try stuff.” On the rare occasions when theatergoers have written to express their concern or disappointment, DeSantis says, “I’ve dealt with it personally and talked to them directly. Building that relationship, that’s something I learned from my grandfather and my aunt. I really consider this whole thing a big family.”
It’s a family that’s growing, with the subscriber base expected to reach about 30,000 by year’s end. With ticket prices a fraction of what the downtown Chicago venues charge, the Drury Lane remains a destination for an afternoon’s or evening’s entertainment at popular prices. (Tickets range from $31 to $45; $47 to $68 with brunch, lunch or dinner.) But now the audience that sits beneath those lavish crystal chandeliers, is “getting a quality there that is… comparable to… places like Paper Mill Playhouse or Goodspeed or any of the big operations nationally,” says Jones. “So it really is a whole new day at the Drury Lane.”
The unprecedented approach to the 2010-2011 season, dubbed “The Year of the Director,” perfectly illustrates this point. As Osetek explains on the Drury Lane website, “Usually we review dozens of scripts and scores to find the right combination of shows… This year… we asked a number of directors to pitch ideas to us – either a favorite show of theirs or one they’ve been anxious to work [on].” Twenty-five pitches were narrowed down to the five that make up the current season: “Ragtime,” “Sugar,” “Hot Mikado,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” and “Monty Python’s SPAMALOT.”
Rachel Rockwell, the director of “Ragtime,” a show with reviews so glowing they’re practically radioactive, explains that, “often you’re asked to pitch things,” but most venues base their seasons “more on the theater’s intent than the director’s.” At the Drury Lane, she says, “I have incredible artistic license. I can do my play the way I want to do it and I’m fully supported in any decision I make. They truly do defer to the director and they let you fully actualize your vision… and that’s a really amazing gift.”
Rockwell, who’s worked at the Drury Lane Theatre as an actor, choreographer and the director of 2009’s critically embraced “Miss Saigon,” returned there at what she calls “the beginning of the renaissance of Drury Lane,” describing it as “a complete reinvention of what it had been previously.” She speaks with gratitude and not a little awe. “We all understand how fortunate we are to be there at the beginning of this incredible change. Even though it’s been there for [more than] 20 years, it feels like this brand new place to be. And because it’s a family business, there is a real sense of family pride, that you become one of their family when you work there.”
Perhaps Kyle DeSantis says it best. “I speak for my entire family, because doing theater is important to us. Most important is for us to be proud of what’s on our stage.”
There’s a smile in his voice as he adds, “And it’s so fun.”
For more on the 2010-2011 season at the Drury Lane Theatre, please visit drurylaneoakbrook.com