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The PrivateBank Theatre

March 31, 2017

  • 18 W. Monroe Street
  • Chicago, IL 60603
  • (312) 977-1700
  • Website

Last fall, Book of Mormon came to Miller Auditorium as part of their PNC Broadway in West Michigan series.  It just so happened that it was in Kalamazoo on my birthday, so when J asked what I wanted, I jokingly said Book of Mormon tickets thinking she wouldn’t really be interested.  She was interested and we got tickets and I loved every minute of it.

As we were leaving the theater, I made a remark about wondering what would be there during her birthday.  She said it didn’t matter.  She wanted to see Hamilton: An American Musical.  I knew we weren’t going to go to New York to see the show, but Chicago has a sit-down production of the musical, so I started looking for tickets to that one.

Turns out, if you’re willing to go during the week, you can still get tickets a few months out.  J’s birthday was actually on a Friday this year which was sold out, but the Thursday night show had a number of tickets in the “cheap seats.”  She said she didn’t care where we sat as long as we got inside the theater.

That theater is The PrivateBank Theatre in downtown Chicago.  The 21-story building that houses the 100+ year old theatre and a Hampton Inn sits on Monroe Street between State and Dearborn Streets in the South Loop.

The PrivateBank Theatre began it’s life in 1906 as the Majestic Theatre.  It’s big claim to fame in Chicago is being the first theater built after the Iroquois Theatre Fire in 1903 after new fire codes took effect which is probably how this theater is still in use today.

The original use for the theater was vaudeville.  A lot of famous vaudeville acts performed at the theatre from it’s opening until the theater closed in 1932 during the Great Depression.  The theater stayed closed until 1945 when it was purchased by the Shubert Organization.  They held control of the theater until 1991.  During that time (and up until 1997), the theater was known as the name I knew it as growing up, The Shubert Theatre.  In 1991, the theater was purchased by another large theater orginization, The Nederlander Organization.  They still own The PrivateBank Theatre to this day.

The theater was closed and renovated by The Nederlander Organization from January of 2005 to May of 2006.  When it reopened, the naming rights had been sold to LaSalle Bank which was later sold to Bank of America which took over the naming rights to the theater.  The PrivateBank took over the naming rights in 2015.

Our show was scheduled to start at 7:30 so we started making our way towards the theater just before 7:00.  We had been downtown since about 5:00 for dinner.  We parked the car a few blocks away at the InterPark ramp on the corner of Wabash and Adams.  This is the official ramp of The PrivateBank Theatre and you get about a $14 discount on parking.  It cost us $24 to park for six hours instead of the $38 it would have normally cost.

People were already congregating on the sidewalk as we made our way to the theater.  They were all attempting to do the same thing we did.  Try to take a picture with the Hamilton marquee in the background.

As anyone who has tried to get tickets already knows, the show was sold out.  There were four doors open underneath the theater marquee with ticket scanners working as fast as they could to get people in the door.  It really only took a couple of minutes even though it looks like there was a huge crush of people.

When we got through the door, there were more employees who looked at tickets to see where our seats actually were.  We had balcony seats so we were quickly pointed to a staircase off to the left and told there were bathrooms, souvenir stands, and a bar upstairs so there was no need to joint the throng of people trying to squeeze in to the lobby.

We bought the cheap seats so we were ushered pretty quickly away from the lobby area so I didn’t really get a good look at it.  I know that the renovation of the building a decade ago really restore a lot of the original features of the building, so there’s some history in this building if you ever get a chance to look around on a day when there isn’t a full house.

As for us, we were moved up four flights of stairs to the balcony.  There are actually two levels for the balcony and our entrance was on the very top one.  It’s actually kind of nice that it’s set up this way because it really cuts down on traffic.  There are three doors on the top level which brings you in to the very top of the house.

Now, while the lobby may be something to look at, the top levels aren’t much more than narrow hallways with wood doors leading into the house.  You have to remember, this theater was built in the early 1900’s when segregation was still a thing.  From the street level, you can actually see how this was accomplished with a door that leads directly from the street to the balcony stairway so the white patrons would never have to see the black patrons who had no choice but to sit in the upper level of the theatre.  There’s very little any modern owner of the building can do now to widen these hallways and make it a little more “majestic.”  As it is now, the men’s and women’s bathroom are on separate floors and the bar is tucked in to a niche between the bathroom and the stairs.

Again, segregation comes in to play with the seating arrangements.  The balcony is pretty steep which actually works to the patron’s advantage.  The theater only seats about 1800 people so even though you may have a slightly obstructed view, you still feel fairly close to the stage.  J pointed out that while it was still difficult to see facial expressions, subtle movements by the actors were noticeable.  By comparison, the balcony at the 5000 seat Miller Auditorium feels so far away from the stage.  The seats were a little on the small side, but I’ve sat in smaller seats in bigger building.  J was a little surprised she never got a vertigo feeling while looking down.  At first, the steepness of the balcony is really noticeable, but once the show starts, it becomes less and less noticeable.

So, how does segregation play in to this?  The theatre was built with two prosceniums.  This, combined with the steep grade of the balcony makes it hard, and in most cases, impossible, for people sitting in the main level to see the people in the balcony.

So, I bet you probably want to know about Hamilton: An American Musical?

It was AWESOME!  I didn’t really know what to expect going in to it.  I intentionally stayed away from the soundtrack because I had heard it was a sing-through musical…which means there’s no dialogue other than singing…which means the soundtrack is the entire show.  J says the soundtrack is hard to follow along because you don’t know which character is singing if you haven’t seen the show, but I’m glad I stayed away.  We all know how  Hamilton and Burr’s story ends, but the journey to get there is pretty incredible.

Oh, speaking of Aaron Burr, we didn’t know this when I got the tickets, but we were lucky enough to see the show while Wayne Brady is playing Aaron Burr.  I always picture Brady as playing the comic relief, but that’s not Burr’s character in this show.   That role goes to the actor who plays Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson (same actor plays both characters…Lafayette in Act I, Jefferson in Act II).  The only way we would have been more excited to see a particular actor in this show is if Lin Manuel-Miranda had shown up to play Hamilton.

I haven’t been to the theater nearly as much as my wife has.  I’ve enjoyed every show I’ve ever been to, but Hamilton just blows everything out of the water.  As for the theater, you don’t really get much of a choice when it comes to where you want to see a certain show.  Whatever theater the show is playing in is the one you have to go to.  The PrivateBank Theatre is actually a pretty nice place.  They’re limited in what can be changed about the building due to the original construction being over a hundred years old.  While it’s not the nicest theater I’ve been in, once the lights go down and Aaron Burr walks out on stage to start the show, it really doesn’t matter what’s behind you.  The experience was great.  The ushers were all super helpful in getting people where they needed to go and every one I interacted with was super friendly and acted like they were truly glad I was there.  The experience is why you go to the theater instead of waiting for the movie to hit Netflix and the experience at The PrivateBank Theatre for Hamilton: An American Musical was an incredible one.

 

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