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The Play’s the Thing

At festivals, in amphitheaters, over dinner and under the lights, stages across the country are set for a year of live performances.

The tradition of live theater has been a strong part of America’s travel landscape for generations. And though pandemic-induced restrictions caused performing arts organizations to shut down for much of 2020, many restarted sometime during 2021. And nearly all are anticipating full schedules — and perhaps full houses — in 2022.

If your group enjoys classic musicals, original plays, outdoor dramas or even the works of Shakespeare, here’s an overview of some of the theatrical opportunities awaiting them this year and beyond.

Dinner Theaters

Offering both meals and entertainment, dinner theaters check multiple boxes for travel planners and have been a longtime staple of group tours. Dinner theaters can be found in destinations large and small around the country.

In Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, the Fireside Dinner Theatre touts itself as the state’s most-visited group tour attraction. Originally started as a restaurant, the theater features first-rate food served in a dining room before guests move to the auditorium for a performance in the round. The theater employs professional actors recruited from across the country. Its 2022 season includes “The Sound of Music,” “What Happens in Vegas,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Grease,” as well as a number of concerts and holiday productions.

Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre in Indianapolis is another year-round theater featuring professional actors. The performance lineup features a mix of classic musical fare such as “Hello Dolly”; newer favorites such as “Kinky Boots” and “The Addams Family”; and lighthearted productions like “Shear Madness” and “The Honky Tonk Angels.” Lunch and dinner menus change to match the themes of the shows onstage, but they always feature the theater’s signature hand-carved roast beef.

Many groups traveling in the Washington and Baltimore metro areas make time to take in a show at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia, Maryland. The company was founded in 1979 by Toby Orenstein, a director and theater educator. Since its inception, Toby’s has produced more than 200 shows, with cast members doubling as meal servers before shows and during intermissions. The 2022-2023 schedule includes “Spamalot,” “The SpongeBob Musical,” “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Something Rotten.”

The Dutch Apple Theatre in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, stands in stark contrast to the simplicity of the Amish communities in the area known as Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Though groups travel to the area to learn about Amish culture, many enjoy an afternoon or evening of glitzy Broadway-style shows at the theater, which has been in operation since 1987. The 2022 lineup includes “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Rock of Ages,” “Chicago” and “Saturday Night Fever.”

Outdoor Dramas

Outdoor drama is a summertime tradition in America. With expansive stages capable of holding dozens of actors and live animals, these shows specialize in telling grand stories of legendary characters.

At My Old Kentucky Home State Park in Bardstown, Kentucky, “The Stephen Foster Story” introduces audiences to Stephen Foster, the great 19th-century American songwriter. Foster wrote the song “My Old Kentucky Home” about his time at the Bardstown estate. Though the show has been a Kentucky tradition for decades, it returned from hiatus in 2021 with an all-new script that more thoroughly examines the historic experience of Black Americans.

The life, death and resurrection of Jesus are depicted in epic fashion at “The Great Passion Play” in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. The play is performed on a 550-foot-wide stage on a mountain near the city in an amphitheater that can accommodate up to 4,100 guests. The production company includes hundreds of actors and dozens of live animals. Thrice-weekly performances begin in late May and run through October.

The badlands surrounding Medora, North Dakota, provide the backdrop for “The Medora Musical.” This Western-inspired production celebrates the legacy of Teddy Roosevelt, who fell in love with Medora during a formative time in his life. The show features patriotic music, horses and fireworks and takes place daily from June to September.

In August 1857, about 115 English settlers arrived on what is now the island of Roanoke, North Carolina, and attempted to set up a community there. Three years later, the settlers and their settlement were gone without a trace. “The Lost Colony” introduces the story to travelers visiting the Outer Banks area. Complete with Native American dances, epic battle scenes and other elements produced by a cast and crew of more than 120, the play was first staged in 1937 and is the country’s longest-running outdoor drama.

Regional Theaters

In several cities across the country, major venues are home to both touring Broadway performances and local theater companies. These regional theaters offer high-quality productions and are often highlights of group visits to their destinations.

In downtown Cleveland, Ohio, Playhouse Square is the country’s largest performing arts facility outside New York. The complex features 11 performances spaces, and several are historic theaters that have been meticulously restored. Touring Broadway performances set up at Playhouse Square, often for extended runs. The venue is also home to the Cleveland Playhouse, the country’s first regional theater company, the Great Lakes Theater and the Cleveland Ballet.

Another prominent regional theater is Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. Since 1925, the Goodman has produced both classic and contemporary works. Located inside the Loop, the Goodman is the city’s oldest and largest not-for-profit theater and has received a special Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theater. Remaining shows for the 2021-22 schedule include “Gem of the Ocean,” “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci” and a new play called “Good Night, Oscar.”

Founded in 1963, Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater has become one of the foremost cultural institutions in the Twin Cities. The architecturally stunning facility, on the banks of the Mississippi River, has a three-sided 1,100-seat auditorium, as well as a more traditional 700-seat theater and a black-box space. The 2021-22 season included a mix of new plays and classics such as “A Christmas Carol,” “A Raisin in the Sun” and “The Tempest.”

New productions step into the spotlight at the La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla, California. The theater has launched numerous shows that have gone on to win Tony Awards and other accolades. The organization’s 2022-23 season will feature pop musical “Lempicka”; a World War II-inspired drama, “Here There Are Blueberries”; and the world premiere of the comedy “Mother Russia.” 

Click here for our Broadway Update.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.