There’s an unmistakable air of anticipation that circulates through the walls of a theater before a live performance, felt by both performers and audience members alike. Live theater can unite an entire room, with every theatergoer and performer engaged in the excitement of entertaining storytelling.
Few places embrace that magic better than America’s Heartland, where the region’s rich history of storytelling has given rise to a number of renowned theaters and playhouses. From a dinner theater in Wisconsin that makes guests feel part of the performance to fresh acts appearing in Kansas City’s oldest theater, here are some of the best venues for live theater in the Midwest.
Derby Dinner Playhouse
Opened in 1974, the Derby Dinner Playhouse is one of the oldest and largest continuously operating professional dinner theaters in the United States. Over the years, it has become known for professionally produced Broadway musicals, comedies, children’s theater and concerts with nationally known and local bands.
The dinner options at the Derby Dinner Playhouse are as highly reputed as the performances. Audience members get a homestyle buffet of classic American dishes each night. The buffet opens an hour and 45 minutes before most shows. The vocal ensemble the Footnotes performs a preshow while guests enjoy entrees like fried chicken, carved turkey and grilled fish.
In addition to its dinner offerings, the playhouse also offers several breakfast and lunch matinees accompanied by corresponding buffets.
“Our stage is surrounded by tiers of dining tables with seating arranged in the round,” said marketing director Annie Myers. “It gives each guest a perfect view of the stage and provides an intimate setting.”
Onstage in early 2019 is “Love, Sex and the IRS,” “The Robber Bridegroom” and “Newsies.”
Kansas City, Missouri
The story of the Folly Theater is as dramatic as the performances that grace its stage each night. After nearly seven decades of wear and neglect, the building that once introduced Kansas City to the Marx Brothers, Gypsy Rose Lee, Fanny Brice and Al Jolson was sentenced to be demolished. But a group of passionate locals rallied around the historic theater and, in 1981, reopened the Folly Theater to display its beautiful restoration and new position on the National Register of Historic Places.
“The Folly has an extremely diverse lineup, from choirs and jazz to Americana and drag queens,” said marketing manager James Maiden. “The Folly Theater is Kansas City’s oldest theater, and I love that it has a long and diverse history of burlesque, vaudeville and opera.”
The Folly produces three different series, including the Folly Jazz Series, the longest-running jazz series in Kansas City; an Americana/folk series; and the Folly Kids Series.
Several other organizations have performed at the Folly for years, including the Heartland Men’s Chorus and the Friends of Chamber Music. New additions to the Folly include the drag show “Murray and Peter Present” and the Youth American Grand Prix’s national dance competition. Group rates are available for Folly-produced shows.
Cleveland Play House
Heralded as America’s first professional regional theater, the Cleveland Play House has been delighting audiences since it opened in 1915. The playhouse is in downtown Cleveland, where the performances are spread throughout three state-of-the-art venues within Playhouse Square.
The Cleveland Play House’s performances are an eclectic mix of contemporary plays, classics, musicals and groundbreaking new performances. Groups enjoy priority reservations, free parking, exclusive dining options and free preshow conversations with the staff and performers. The playhouse also offers a suite of nine educational programs that include immersive experiences for audiences of all ages.
“We get to tell stories that matter,” said associate artistic director Robert Barry Fleming. “It’s the one of the remaining communal meeting places we have where we can have a conversation and meditate and reflect on themes and narratives that speak to our common humanity.”
The 2018-19 season opener is Susan Hill’s classic ghost story “The Woman in Black.” That will be followed by the 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Sweat.” The rest of the season is filled with exciting performances, including “An Iliad,” “Sherwood: The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Tiny Houses” by Chelsea Marcantel and “Native Gardens” by Karen Zacarias.
The Guthrie Theater’s moxie was displayed first on opening night, May 7, 1963, when it raised the curtain on a jaw-dropping production of “Hamlet” directed by the theater’s founder, Tyrone Guthrie. The mission from Day One has remained the same: to create a resident theater that performs the classics with the highest professional standards.
The theater welcomes groups with plenty of amenities. It offers multiple on-site dining options, including quick-service cafes and kiosks and the celebrated restaurant Sea Change, which features a menu of sustainable seafood dishes. Groups can get an exclusive look behind the curtain with backstage tours, costume rental packages and architectural tours.
“The Guthrie is devoted to both classic and contemporary plays, and next season will be an exciting combination of time-honored favorites and brilliant new work,” said Joseph Haj, artistic director for the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.
The 2019 season opens with a sharp-witted new drama, “The Great Leap,” and goes on to include favorites like Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” “Metamorphoses” and “Guys and Dolls.” The theater also hosts concerts and events.