MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Summer on stage

In vacation towns, plays and musicals offer a midsummer's-night diversion.

American Players Theatre in Spring Green.

© Pete Olsen

In Spring Green, American Players Theatre's main stage is outdoors.

In vacation hubs all across the region, summer theaters are launching another season of delicious escapism.

With corps of enthusiastic young actors drawn from all over the nation, they’ll put on Neil Simon, Shakespeare, Agatha Christie and the bouncy musicals vacationers love — "Little Shop of Horrors,’’ "Fiddler on the Roof,'' "Spamalot.''

Light-hearted plays for light-hearted days — it's a formula that works.

Here's the schedule for 2020.

Most summer theaters use a mix of students and professional actors from the Twin Cities or Chicago, who enjoy a bit of moonlighting in resort towns.

Bemidji's Paul Bunyan Playhouse started when an entrepreneur brought a troupe of New York actors to the northern Minnesota town in 1951. 

He set up a theater at a resort on the shore of Lake Bemidji and started a glorious season of summer stock. Four weeks later, he was broke, and the actors were stranded.

But Bemidji's citizens had become hooked on theater. They raised enough money to pay the actors' room and board while they performed the rest of the season's plays, and enough to pay for their tickets home. Then the town raised enough to pay for a season the next year, and the year after that.

Now, the Paul Bunyan Playhouse is Minnesota's oldest professional summer-stock company.

On the shores of Lake L'Homme Dieu in Alexandria, Minn., Theatre L’Homme Dieu was started in 1961 at an old resort, a collaboration between Alexandria and St. Cloud State University.

In the lakes region of northwest Iowa, Okoboji Summer Theater began in an old airplane hangar in 1953, then was bought and expanded by Stephens College of Columbia, Mo.

All summer theaters are in areas with lots of tourists, who come to see a play after a day of sunning or sightseeing.

Spring Green, Wis., is home not only to the classical American Players Theater, whose professional troupe comes mainly from Chicago, but to kitschy House on the Rock.

The Paul Bunyan Playhouse in Bemidji.

© Beth Gauper

In Bemidji, the Paul Bunyan Playhouse performs in the Historic Chief Theater.

In Wisconsin's Door County, American Folklore Theatre puts on original musical comedies in an amphitheater ringed by tall red pines in Peninsula State Park.

The Peninsula Players are nearby, in Fish Creek. The troupe put on its first plays in 1935 in the back yard of a Fish Creek motel and is the nation's oldest professional resident summer theater.

Now, it performs on the site of an old boys' camp on the shores of Green Bay, in an open-sided pavilion on the edge of a twinkle-lit cedar forest. Ticket-holders like to stroll there before the play, sipping glasses of wine.

Of the theaters below, only Door County's Northern Sky Theater and American Players Theater in Spring Green perform in the open air; American Players Theater also has an indoor theater.

American Players Theater, Spring Green, Wis. In 2020, it's presenting "Rough Cross,'' "Sense and Sensibility,'' "Julius Caesar,'' "The Madwoman of Chaillot'' and "Love's Labour's Lost'' in the Hill Theatre from June 6 to Oct. 4.

In the Touchstone Theatre, it's staging "A Phoenix Too Frequent,'' "The River Bride,'' and "The Brothers Size.'' "Stones in His Pockets'' will be presented from Oct. 22 to Nov. 15.

The plays are performed in repertory. 608-588-2361.

For more about the area, see Drawn to Spring Green.

Big Top Chautauqua, Bayfield, Wis. It schedules original musical revues, including "Riding the Wind,'' "Take Me to the Islands'' and "Superior!'' and concerts by nationally known performers most nights from June through Labor Day.

The season is canceled in 2020.

For more about the area, see Beloved Bayfield.

Commonweal Theatre, Lanesboro, Minn: This theater occupies a main-street storefront in this bluff-country burg.

In 2020, Commonweal Theatre is presenting in repertory "I Ought to Be in Pictures," April 2 through June 13; "Born Yesterday,'' from May 7 through Sept. 5; "1 Man 2 Guvnors,'' from June 19 through Nov. 2; "Doubt,'' from Sept. 11 through Nov. 15; and "A Christmas Carol,'' from Nov. 20 through Dec. 21. 

For more about Lanesboro, see The belle of bluff country.

Peninsula Players in Door County.

© Boyd Fellows

In Door County, the Peninsula Players perform on the shores of Green Bay.

Door Shakespeare, Baileys Harbor, Wis. This troupe performs in the gardens of Björklunden, the northern campus of Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis.

In 2020, it will stage "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised]'' May 20-June 15 in the Ephraim Village Hall and, with "Wittenberg" and "Hamlet,'' June 17-Aug. 24 in repertory.

For more about the area, see Baileys Harbor in Door County.

Great River Shakespeare Festival, Winona, Minn. In 2020, "The Taming of the Shrew,'' "The Tempest,'' "Great Expectations," and "Every Brilliant Thing" will be staged June 21-Aug. 2 at the Performing Arts Center of Winona State University.

Many other events are held in conjunction with the festival, such as free concerts, coffeehouse discussions with cast members, Front Porch Conversations with experts, events at Theatre du Mississippi and walking tours hosted by the Winona County Historical Society.

For details and tickets, call 507-474-7900.

For more about the area, see Afloat in Winona.

Long Lake Theater, Hubbard, Minn. This small theater is in the lakes country near Park Rapids. Call 218-732-0099.

In 2019, it staged "Mousetrap,'' June 7-23; "Closing Time," July 12-28, and "Side by Side by Sondheim" Aug. 16-Sept. 1. 

For more, see Summer in Park Rapids.

Mantorville Theatre Company, Mantorville, Minn. In the stone 1918 Opera House of this tiny village near Rochester, this company puts on old-fashioned summer melodramas with audience participation. 

They're fun, and tickets are inexpensive. During the year, the company stages modern comedies. 507-635-5420.

Northern Sky Theater in Fish Creek, Wis. This troupe performs in an amphitheater in Peninsula State Park and also in its indoor Gould Theater, east of Fish Creek and just south of the corner of county roads A and F.

From June 10 to Aug. 29 in 2020, it's staging "Love Stings'' "Belgians in Heaven''  and "Fishing for the Moon,'' in repertory at the amphiteater. 

From June 16 to Sept. 5, it's staging "Skywriting!" Dad's Season Tickets,'' Song of the Inland Seas'' and "The Mountains Call My Name'' at the Gould. "Naked Radio'' and "And If Elected," play from Sept. 11 to Oct. 31.

For more about the area, see Fish Creek in Door County.

Northern Sky Theater in Door County.

© Door County Visitor Burea

In Door County, Northern Sky Theater performs in an amphitheater in Peninsula State Park.

Okoboji Summer Theatre in Spirit Lake, Iowa. In 2020, it's offering "The Marvelous Wonderettes: Dream On," June 16-21; "Clue: On Stage!" June 23-26; "Grease," June 30-July 5; "Ken Ludwig's A Comedy of Tenors,'' July 7-12; "Terms of Endearment,'' July 14-19; "Noises Off,'' July 21-26; "The All Night Strut!'' July 28-Aug. 2; "The Outsider,'' Aug. 4-9; and "The Music Man,'' Aug. 11-16.

The theater also puts on a full schedule of children's plays.

Paul Bunyan Playhouse in Bemidji, Minn. In 2020, it's putting on "All Shook Up,"  June 5-13; "Brighton Beach Memoirs,'' June 19-27; "Grease,'' July 1-11; "Sylvia,'' July 17-25; and "Young Frankenstein,'' July 29-Aug. 8.

For more, see Bemidji's behemoths.

Peninsula Players, between Fish Creek and Egg Harbor, Wis. The company performs in a covered pavilion on the shores of Green Bay in Door County.

In 2020, it's producing "Rounding Third,'' June 16-July 5; "Something Rotten!'' July 8-26; "Agatha Christie's The Unexpected Guest,'' July 29-Aug. 16; "And Neither Have I Wings to Fly,'' Aug. 19-Sept. 6; and "The Gentleman Thief,'' Sept. 9-Oct. 18.

Tours are given at 2 p.m. many Sundays. Some performances are followed by talk-backs. Check for other special events. 920-868-3287.

For more about the area, see Egg Harbor in Door County.

Red Barn Theatre in Rice Lake, Wis. In a grove of pine east of town, the Hardscrabble Players are presenting their 60th season.

In 2020, it's presenting "Ripcord,'' May 27-June 6; "Doubt,'' June 17-27; "Legally Blonde The Musical," July 8-18; "Aboveboard,'' July 29-Aug. 8; "The Boys in Autumn,'' Aug. 12-15; and "The Great American Trailer Park Musical,'' Aug. 26-Sept. 5.

St. Croix Festival Theatre, St. Croix Falls, Wis. It stages concerts as well as a theater series.

In 2020, it's staging "Silent Sky,'' April 17-May 3; "Into the Woods," June 13-July 5; "Pride and Prejudice," July 11-Aug. 1; "Picasso at the Lapin Agile,'' Aug. 6-23; "The Crucible,'' Oct. 10-31, and "The Gift of the Magi,'' Nov. 28-Dec. 20.

For more about the area, see Trail mix in St. Croix Falls.

Theatre l'Homme Dieu in Alexandria, Minn. In 2020, it's presenting "Ruthless!'' July 21-25; "The Good Humor Men,'' July 28-Aug. 1; and the musical "Glensheen,'' Aug. 7-16. Call 320-846-3150. 

For more, see Alexandria's enigma.

Timber Lake Playhouse in Mount Carroll, Ill. This professional troupe has been presenting plays on a large, wooded campus near the shores of Timber Lake since 1962.

In 2020, it's presenting "Jesus Christ Superstar,'' June 4-14; "Lend Me A Tenor,'' June 18-28; "What a Wonderful World,'' July 2-12; "Legally Blonde,'' July 16-Aug. 2; "Annie,'' Aug. 6-16; "Ain't Misbehavin','' Aug. 20-30; and "The Buddy Holly Story,'' Sept. 10-27.

Last updated on May 5, 2020