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Setting the Stage for Summer

July 5, 2007 By:
Patricia Kutza. JE Feature
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 Inviting summer temperatures are like a siren's song, tempting even the most sedentary of folks to enjoy outdoor pursuits. Theater-lovers need not plug their ears with wax (as Odysseus directed his crew to do) because those mythological siren songs will lead them, not to sleep, but to the birthplace of some of the best entertainment still extant: theater performed outdoors.

Way before such mega-events as the Olympics and the Super Bowl demanded the construction of epic-sized amphitheaters, the Greeks, around 300 BCE, carved out a section of the southern cliff face of the Acropolis and built the Theatre of Dionysus out of stone.

As many as 17,000 folks enjoyed the Dionysia, an agrarian celebration of wine and food. In fact, well before "American Idol" dominated the American tube, audiences voted for their favorite performances.

Such playwrights as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides unveiled their latest plays to both the bravos and jeers of the theater's audience.

There are plenty of outdoor theater experiences awaiting U.S. theater-goers this summer -- and that doesn't even count the Jewish camps you can visit for their own productions of "Fiddler on the Roof" or "Milk and Honey," starring your kids.

Despite the fact that a few centuries separate the two, this 21st-century audience will cheer and jeer just like their ancestors did in that theater near the Acropolis.

Eight-Mile-High Thespians

This year, the musical "Hair" is attracting people willing to trek about 8 miles up northern California's Mount Tamalpais. There, they will join audiences that sometimes reach capacity to see the annual "Mountain Play" performed at the 4,000-seat Sidney B. Cushing Memorial Amphitheater.

For those less inclined to hike, there's free bus transportation up to the theater. That's a convenience that members of the audience in 1913 did not have when they scaled Tamalpais to view "Abraham and Isaac" -- the first "Mountain Play" produced there.

Through the years, the producers have also added features like sign-language interpreters, simultaneous audio description, a shaded wheelchair platform and a graded wheelchair path.

Lost in Place

On the eastern seaboard, another tradition is in full swing. Located on the Outer Banks of North Carolina at Roanoke Island, the Waterfront Theatre is celebrating its 70th-anniversary production of "The Lost Colony."

This musical production recounts, in a docudrama format, the trials and tribulations of some 120 men, women and children who established the first English settlement in the New World on Roanoke Island in 1587. Other offerings this season include "Shakespeare in Love," "South Pacific" and "Cinderella."

Six Waves of Separation

Where chop from the Roanoke Sound can sometimes make Waterfront Theatre audiences reach for their jackets, the San Antonio River literally separates audiences from the stage at San Antonio-based Arneson River Theater.

Every summer, this theatre plays host to the Fiesta Noche del Rio, a musical extravaganza featuring the songs and dances of Mexico, Spain, Argentina and ... Texas. During intermission, theater-goers can mosey around La Villata, a reconstructed village that is the original site of the 19th-century Spanish military enclave, as well as the area where German and French immigrants settled near the end of that century.

Drama in the Vines

Not far from Angel's Camp -- and the Jumping Frog that Mark Twain made famous -- is Murphys, another historic small town in the Sierra Nevada foothills of northern California. At nearby Stevenot Winery, there's "Theatre Under the Stars" performances at its Murphys Creek Theatre.

The 2007 season serves up such plays as "Voice of the Prairie," "As You Like It" and "Humble Boy," in addition to a series of special events that include improvisational comedy and an opera/musical production.

Thrills at Sea Level

There's no climbing necessary at Ravinia.

In fact, this 100-plus-year-old Highland Park, Ill.-based outdoor venue, with an open-air pavilion that seats 3,200, boasts yearly attendance of about 600,000. Guests are offered a wide range of events (more than 120 a year) that spans all genres, from classical music to jazz to music theater over each three-month summer season.

This year's schedule reflects an eclectic mix with such varied offerings as "Jazz With the Joffrey (Ballet)"; Wynton Marsalis; B.B. King; and several performances of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Due east and fronting Lake Michigan is the Jay Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park in downtown Chicago. Lake breezes can make this venue chilly, but experiencing theater within the arches of its stunning architecture more than makes up for its location.

Musical aficionados will want to catch "Bernstein's Broadway" and the Lyric Opera in early September. (Of course, local music fans have Philadelphia's Mann Center, without the schlep.)

Plays of Jewish Interest

Some of the most compelling performances this summer are being presented nationwide by local Jewish community centers. The Osher Marin JCC in northern California, for example, will showcase "Rebbe Soul" -- a singer who blends rock sensibilities, world-fusion influences and traditional Hebrew melodies into his own brand of Jewish songs.

And nominated for four Kevin Kline awards in 2006, the acclaimed New Jewish Theatre, housed in the St. Louis JCC, has an inviting season ahead of it, with such plays as Neil Simon's "Broadway Bound"; David Gow's "Cherry Docs"; and "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife," by Charles Busch.

Info to Go

· The Mountain Play, Mount Tamalpais, Calif.; www.mountainplay.org

· Ravinia Festival; www.ravinia.org

· Millennium Park, Chicago; www.millenniumpark.org

· Waterfront Theatre, Roanoke Island, N.C.; www.thelostcolony.zorg

· Arneson River Theatre, La Vallita, San Antonio, Texas; www. lavillita.com/events/index. htm

· Murphys Creek Theatre/ Stevenot Winery, Murphys, Calif.; www.murphyscreektheatre. org

· Osher Marin Jewish Community Center, San Rafael, Calif.; www.marinjcc.org

· St. Louis Jewish Community Center, St. Louis; www.jccstl. com

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