The interior of the new Music Box theater at Ravinia Festival
Interior of the Music Box at Ravinia Credit: Courtesy BRC Arts

Here’s one way to think about the Ravinia Music Box, the new, high-tech attraction that debuted this month in its own building on the festival grounds: it takes the legendary music venue back to its earliest days.

In 1904, when Ravinia first opened, it was an amusement park, intended to drum up passengers for a new railroad, the Chicago and Milwaukee line. Built along the railroad tracks, with its own station, it featured a carousel and thrilling electric swing ride, along with an electric fountain, skating rink, ballroom, baseball diamond, and theater. Also, a music pavilion.

It wasn’t until that venture bankrupted, in 1911, and philanthropists took over, that the music became the whole show.

From 1919 until 1931, when it closed thanks to the Depression, Ravinia was a top-tier summer opera venue; when it reopened, in 1936, it became the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with classical music as its major focus.  

Since long before last year’s COVID-19 shutdown, however, there’s been concern—at Ravinia and elsewhere—about dwindling audiences for the classical genre. Ravinia’s pop and other offerings can fill the lawn but, as former CEO Welz Kauffman noted at a Music Box preview earlier this month, audiences for those events aren’t necessarily coming back for classical concerts.  

Kauffman, who headed Ravinia from 2000 to 2020, said he was pondering how to take advantage of the fact that those nonclassical audiences typically arrive as much as three or four hours early and have a lot of free time in the park when he visited the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield. He was blown away by its multimedia presentation of the Lincoln story, and came away wondering “Who did this?” and “Could they do it for Leonard Bernstein?”  

The firm behind the Lincoln Museum show was California-based BRC Imagination Arts;  Kauffman got in touch.

The result, 15 years and a lot of collaboration later, is Bernstein’s Answer—a 12-minute “immersive theater experience” that whisks through Bernstein’s life from gifted prodigy (who could “see” music) to multi-genre composer, conductor, activist, and television icon. It plays in a 65-seat “4D” theater with wraparound screens, light and kinetic effects, Bernstein’s own scores in a soaring bath of sound, and some startling holographic images of “host” Bobby McFerrin and a young “volunteer” from the audience played by Chicago actor and singer Amina Gorman. Bernstein himself appears in photos, video clips, and as an animated cartoon figure that brings to mind an obvious—though very different—predecessor: Disney’s Fantasia, circa 1940.  

The audience experience begins in an outer lobby of the gently curving structure built to house it, moves on to a brief video introduction on multiple framed screens in an inner “Welz Kauffman” lobby, and, after the theater presentation, ends in a gallery that leads to the exit. The building (which also houses a rooftop bar) and the current production cost a total of $28 million; Bernstein’s Answer is expected to have a five-year run before it’s replaced by another show.    

Current CEO Jeffrey Haydon said education is at the heart of this roller coaster of multisensory stimulation, and it’s easy to see the Music Box as a magnet for school groups on field trips. Kauffman considers it “an overture.” (He said he was aware that the classical world might consider it “too surfacy,” but reasoned, “If you’re taking someone for their first sushi, do you order blowfish or California roll?”)

And BRC creative director Brad Shelton, whose firm also created the hologram feature for the Illinois Holocaust Museum and is working on a Chicago Blues Experience, said, “We want people to think this is the coolest thing they’ve ever seen.”

It’s definitely cool. But what sticks, at least on a first viewing, is the technology at play—the light, the sound, the figures that look real enough to embrace. For an effort to inspire with the power of music (especially classical music), it does a grand job of impressing with the power of technology.

If you’re heading to Ravinia during the next month to catch, say, the Beach Boys or John Legend, you can check out Bernstein’s Answer yourself. Access is free with each Ravinia ticket, but you’ll probably need to head there early in your visit. Even at full capacity, they’ll be moving a maximum of just 260 people through the “experience” each hour, starting when the park opens and ending a half hour before the Pavilion performance.