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 Ñ it's a formula that works.

Here's the schedule for 2017.

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 the American Folklore Theatre and American Players Theater perform in the open air; American Players Theater also has an indoor theater.

American Players Theater, Spring Green, Wis. In 2018, it's presenting "As You Like It,'' "Born Yesterday,'' "The Recruiting Officer,'' "Heartbreak House'' and "Measure for Measure'' in the Hill Theatre from June 9 to Oct. 7.

In the Touchstone Theatre, it's staging "Blood Knot,'' "Exit the King,'' "Our Country's Good'' and "Engaging Shaw'' from June 9 to Nov. 18.

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.

In 2017, performers include Bonnie Raitt, Indigo Girls, Ziggy Marley and the Beach Boys. 888-244-8368.

For more about the area, see Beloved Bayfield.

Commonweal Theatre, Lanesboro, Minn: In 2017, it's presenting in repertory "When We Dead Awaken," April 14 through June 17; "The Elephant Man'' from May 19 through Sept. 2; "Steel Magnolias'' from June 23 through Oct. 23; "Ghost-Writer'' from Sept. 7 through Nov. 12; and "The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge'' from Nov. 16 through Dec. 22. 800-657-7025.

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 2018, it will stage "The Comedy of Errors'' and "Much Ado About Nothing'' in repertory from June 28 through Aug. 18.

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

Great River Shakespeare Festival, Winona, Minn. In 2017, "The Comedy of Errors,'' "Richard III,'' "An Iliad" and "Shipwrecked! An Entertainment'' will be staged June 21-July 30 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 2017, it's staging "Moon Over Buffalo'' June 8 to July 1; "A Complete History of America" July 6-29, "Souvenir" Aug. 2-26 and "Closing Time" Sept. 1-17. 

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 not sophisticated, but they're fun, and tickets are only $9. During the year, the company stages modern comedies. 507-635-5420.

Northern Sky Theater in Fish Creek, Wis. From June 14 to Aug. 26 in 2017, it's staging "Doctor! Doctor!'' "Oklahoma in Wisconsin,'' "Victory Farm'' and "Lumberjacks in Love,'' in repertory. From Sept. 1 to Oct. 21, it's staging "Naked Radio'' in the Door Community Auditorium.

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 2017, it's offering "The World Goes 'Round," June 13-18; "Plaza Suite," June 20-25; "The Nerd," June 27-July 2; "Footloose,'' July 4-9; "Boeing-Boeing,'' July 11-16; "On Golden Pond,'' July 18-23; "Move Over, Mrs. Markham,'' July 25-30; "Sylvia,'' Aug. 1-6; and "South Pacific,'' Aug. 8-13.

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

Paul Bunyan Playhouse in Bemidji, Minn. In 2018, it's putting on "Ring of Fire"  June 8-16; "The Complete History of America Abridged'' June 22-30; "Clue the Musical'' July 6-14; "Steel Magnolias'' July 20-28; and "Hairspray'' Aug. 1-11.

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 2017, it's producing "The Actuary'' June 13-July 2; "Peter and the Starcatcher'' July 5-23; "The Bridges of Madison County'' July 26-Aug. 13; "Lord Arthur Savile's Crime'' Aug. 16-Sept. 3 and "Almost, Maine'' Sept. 6-Oct. 15.

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 56th season: "Pump Boys and Dinettes,'' May 31-June 10; "Duck Hunter Shoots Angel,'' June 21-July 1; "Sister Act,'' July 12-22; "Glorious!'' Aug. 2-12; and "KOLD Radio,'' Aug. 23-Sept. 2.

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

In 2018, it's staging "The Fantasticks," June 16-July 8; "Leading Ladies," July 14-Aug. 5; "Elephant's Graveyard,'' Aug. 11-26; "Little Women,'' Oct. 6-27, and "Miracle on 34th Street,'' Nov. 24-Dec. 23.

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

Theatre l'Homme Dieu in Alexandria, Minn. In 2018, it's presenting "String,'' June 26-July 1; "Driving Miss Daisy,'' July 10-15; "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged),'' July 31-Aug. 5; and two musicals. Call 320-846-3150. 

For more, see Alexandria's enigma.

Last updated on February 20, 2018