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updated: 8/31/2012 1:13 PM

Naperville native lives her dream in Marriott debut

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  • Darilyn Burtley

    Darilyn Burtley

  • Darilyn Burtley, right, makes her professional debut as Michelle in Marriott Theatre's revival of "Dreamgirls." Marc Robin directs and choreographs the production, which stars Britney Coleman, center, as Deena and Rashidra Scott, left, as Lorrell.

    Darilyn Burtley, right, makes her professional debut as Michelle in Marriott Theatre's revival of "Dreamgirls." Marc Robin directs and choreographs the production, which stars Britney Coleman, center, as Deena and Rashidra Scott, left, as Lorrell.
    Photo by Peter Coombs and the Marriott Theatre

  • Video: "Dreamgirls" montage


Darilyn Burtley sang before she could talk.

As a baby, the Naperville native spent as many as five days a week in church with her choir director mother, who claims Darilyn began humming church hymns at age 1, before she ever uttered a word.

Darilyn, 21, doesn't know for sure. But the formerly homeless young woman is happily humming now that she's making her professional debut in Marriott Theatre's revival of "Dreamgirls."

Overwhelming and intimidating is how Burtley described her introduction to the world of professional musical theater, "but the cast and the staff have been so welcoming and understanding," she said. "They went out of their way to teach me the ins-and-outs of the business."

Burtley remains a little in awe of her castmates, who bring considerable experience to Marriott's stage.

"I'm still a little in awe of them," confesses Burtley, who didn't immediately recognize the significance of getting cast in a Marriott show, and nearly missed her big break as a result.

The day of callbacks, the Columbia College Chicago student had a tap dance test. Missing it would have affected her grade. But after Burtley told her instructor about the "Dreamgirls" callback, the instructor insisted Burtley go. That moment the budding actress realized how big a deal it was.

A graduate of Naperville's Neuqua Valley High School, Burtley grew up in the church, singing gospel music in the choir with her mother and two older sisters.

"I feel I've been given a gift from God," said Burtley, who says her mother, grandmother and siblings have the same gift, but chose children and family over music.

Burtley chose a different path, but the road hasn't been easy.

Burtley's father, her mother's second husband, died before Darilyn was born. Three years later, Burtley's mother married again, but money was tight and the marriage troubled, Darilyn Burtley said. Her mother raised and supported five children mostly on her own, she says. Fearing people would judge her, she kept the truth about her situation from even her closest friends.

"It wasn't easy being at home, that's why I spent so much time in rehearsal," Burtley said. "As a child, I was helpless. As a young adult, the only thing I could do was to get up onstage and make my mom proud."

After the bank foreclosed on their house and the family became homeless, Burtley's mother sent the then 15-year-old Darilyn and her two younger siblings to Georgia to live with an aunt. In Georgia, she discovered musical theater and support for her budding interest from her beloved aunt who taught the teenager you don't have to merely survive, you can live your dreams.

"She (Burtley's aunt who died of breast cancer in 2007) told me I can do whatever I want, and be whatever I want to be," she said.

Returning to Illinois six months later, she got a role in Thornwood High School's production of James Baldwin's play "The Amen Corner."

"There was no turning back," said Burtley, who transferred to Neuqua Valley where she auditioned for every show and vocal ensemble. She played the apothecary in "Romeo and Juliet" and Calpurnia in "To Kill a Mockingbird." She sang with the chamber singers, served as president of the Black Student Union and won the lead in her school's musical "Crazy For You."

Still, Burtley says she felt intimidated by wealthier classmates -- trained in voice, dance and piano -- who had an I'm-better-than-you attitude.

"For a little while, I believed it," she said.

But not for long. After graduation, she enrolled at Columbia College Chicago. She's taking the semester off to do "Dreamgirls," but intends to return in January.

"I'm not going to stop my education and I'm not going to stop my search for roles," she said

Her family is doing better. Her older sisters are working, and her mother lives in Aurora with Darilyn's 17-year-old sister ("who's going to make us all proud") and 16-year-old brother, an aspiring professional skateboarder.

"Together we make it," she said.

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