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Overtures and Ovations

Lucia Mauro profiles director and choreographer Marc Robin, who keeps Chicago singing and dancing and... logo

Mark Robin
Every time Marc Robin jumps into another directing and/or choreographing project, he encapsulates his vision of the show in one word. His smash hit, All Night Strut, at Drury Lane Evergreen Park--where he has served as artistic director for the past four years--burst with "exuberance." For Strike Up the Band, the critically lauded debut of the Auditorium Theatre's Ovations series--concert celebrations of great American musicals--he wove an understated tapestry of "elegance." His choreography for Chicago Shakespeare Theatre's fantastical production of A Midsummer Night's Dream soared with "eclecticism."

But apart from favoring adjectives beginning with "e," Robin has a talent for wrapping a musical in a single mood--and for keeping audiences entertained. His attachment to those mid-20th century, heavenly-hoofer musicals is transmitted through his every nerve-ending and even across the cellular landscape.

"I love my job!" enthuses Robin as he chats into his cell phone while driving home from rehearsals for The Pirates of Penzance, his latest effort. "I live to go to rehearsal. I get to work with the neatest, funniest people. Thank God I don't have to sit behind a desk all day. I mean, think about it. What did I do today? I worked on scenes with two of the most hilarious actors in Chicago: Alene Robertson and Don Forston. We laughed for two hours, and I got paid for it!"

But Robin, one of Chicago's most omnipresent theater artists, does not necessarily guffaw all day long. He's known to pour tremendous amounts of thought, energy, freshness, and meticulous detail into his shows, from Drury Lane Evergreen Park, where he began directing and choreographing 10 years ago, to Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace, Marriott, and the Auditorium and Shubert Theatres.

Not surprisingly, Robin is also known for the overflowing platter of theater commitments he tends to keep all at once. For example, aside from directing The Pirates of Penzance, Robin is also artistic director of the Ovations series whose next concert, the 1943 musical One Touch of Venus (directed by Gary Griffin, another ubiquitous Chicago artist and frequent Robin collaborator), opens April 6. Robin will then direct Ovations' May staging of Babes in Arms, choreograph the much-anticipated Side Show at Northlight Theatre and direct Do Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? at Drury Lane Evergreen Park, where he has also penned most of their children's shows.

And to fill up his spare time, Robin has been hired by Stadivarius Productions in London to write book, music and lyrics for a show for young audiences as yet untitled, and we can't forget that Robin teaches musical theater at Northwestern University in Evanston. Every now and then Robin makes it on stage as well, such as in 1998 when he played The Scarecrow in Marriott's inventive staging of The Wizard of Oz.

So...has Robin taken some courses in time management or is he naturally adept at omni-tasking?

"I have this big calendar--no lie," Robin laughs as he weaves through rush-hour traffic, "and I kind of map out my life. I also couldn't do it without my terrific support staff. That's what I love about working in Chicago. People are so generous. The theater community here is one great big family."

Now 38, Robin has spent 32 years in the business, starting when he was cast as Toto in The Wizard of Oz in his native New York. Shortly after, his "immensely supportive parents"--Lottie and Henry Rabinowitz--moved to Fort Lauderdale, where they enrolled their extroverted son in the Fort Lauderdale Children's Theatre program.

"That was such a cool experience," Robin recalls, "because we wrote and performed in our own shows. I got bit at a young age, and I stayed bit. I never wavered from pursuing a career in theater. At no point did I want to become, say, a marine biologist." The committed artist then continued as an ensemble member at the Children's Theatre until the age of 16, when left to study theater in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He went on to perform in regional theater and in New York before settling in Chicago 18 years ago.

Of all theatrical artforms, Robin says he is most closely attached to dance. Indeed, all of his stagings are rooted in a kind of multidimensional movement aesthetic, and he counts Ann Reinking among his mentors. "I respect Ann for her ability to get inside the movement and have a really strong feel for what is right," Robin explains. "Her knowledge and understanding of dance as it relates to the world of theater is unparalleled."

Reinking--like her own mentor, the late Bob Fosse--is known for presenting her dancers with a vivid and visual idea for her choreography. Robin is said to continue this tradition.

"Often times I use water imagery to convey the feel of a movement," Robin says. "Like I'll tell the cast, 'imagine that your arm is attached to a string and it's being pulled through water.' It creates a combination of resistance and beauty. [But] not all shows require such explicit descriptions. For instance, in Crazy for You, they just dance their brains out on top of a crate. But, in West Side Story, we would work on creating an entire environment in the mind for the ballet sequence. The intensity of the script must be reflected in the dance. Dance drives the musical."

When asked if choreography shapes all of his directorial undertakings, Robin analyzed the various instances in which the medium is the movement. "In a show like Do Patent Leather Shoes...," he continues, "the choreography and the story are inseparable. They comment on each other. To a degree, that's true of Side Show, which is performed in a vaudeville/burlesque style. Yet the overall musical takes place in a very different world. So you have two separate ideas going on that have to fit together."

Currently, Robin says he's having "a blast" directing The Pirates of Penzance, Gilbert and Sullivan's delightful but notoriously implausible 1877 operetta.

"I'll admit there are moments when I think Pirates is stupid and laughable," Robin acknowledges. "But the key is that if audiences believe the sincerity of the characters, they will enjoy it. I took some cues from those wonderful vignettes on The Carol Burnett Show for this production. I want them to be entertained but still get them invested in the story and in the characters."

Of all his productions, Robin ranks his elaborate and emotionally stirring 1999 production of La Cage Aux Folles as the high point of his career, something matched by the enthusiastic response from Drury Lane Evergreen Park's generally conservative subscribers. He is equally ecstatic over the success of the Ovations series, which features world-class talent and a 33-piece orchestra.

But whatever he is doing, Robin's artistic philosophy never changes. "There are no such things as problems," he states reflectively, "only solutions." And then, after a pause, he adds what might be his credo: "I want audiences to be entertained, enlightened, or changed somehow so when they leave the theater, they want to come back."

One suspects that they will.

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