Curtain Call: NH Summer Theater 2023
Spotlight of greatness shines on this year’s Granite State summer theater
The Granite State continues to offer a vibrant diversity of summer theater in nearly every corner of the state, appealing to year-round residents and tourists alike. Not having to travel to Boston or Broadway to catch beloved musicals and plays, theater-lovers can rejoice just about everywhere — from New London and Wolfeboro to Cornish and Portsmouth. Unbeknownst to many, New Hampshire’s summer theaters have attracted their share of Hollywood and Broadway star power, lending them a true air of greatness.
Academy Award-Winner Estelle Parsons “Loves” Village Players and Barnstormers
Vibrant summer theater and Lake Winnipesaukee’s resort community of Wolfeboro are a match made in heaven. Thanks to The Village Players, summer theater is an arts and cultural mainstay enjoyed by summer residents, tourists and native Granite Staters since the 1930s.
This summer Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” will grace the stage with a full complement of local, regional and national actors. Later this fall “Oliver!” is on the playbill, followed by “Ho, Ho, Ho! The Santa Claus Chronicles” during the holiday season.
One of their well-known supporters is Academy Award-winning actress Estelle Parsons, whose film credits include “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967), “Rachel, Rachel” (1968), and a made-for-television movie co-starring James Earl Jones in 1975, “The UFO Incident,” which tells the story of the 1961 White Mountains alien abduction of Betty and Barney Hill, a Portsmouth couple who subsequently became cultural icons. Parsons, who is now 95, summers in Wolfeboro and often brings great shows from The Actors Studio to the Lakes Region community.
Her love affair with The Village Players and The Barnstormers Theatre began at a very early age. Parsons says she grew up in Wolfeboro and saw her first play at age seven when The Barnstormers came to town.
“I love it and I love The Barnstormers, too,” Parsons says. She adds that when people attend The Village Players shows, they witness “a marvelous group of actors doing what they really love to do when they get home from work. It’s a wonderful group of people. Theater is like that. You get together in a group and you solve all your differences through discussion, and it’s a home away from home.”
She brings two of her shows to Wolfeboro each summer to raises money for The Village Players. This summer she will stage “Re-Entry,” a play where five actors portray felons who use jazz and theater to construct new lives for themselves. “Re-Entry” will be performed at The Village Players during the first week of September. “American Rot,” a play that centers on how racism erodes society, will be performed in Wolfeboro on August 10 and 11.
Barnstormers, the Brainchild of President Grover Cleveland’s Son
The village Tamworth is a beautiful gateway to the White Mountains and an important arts and cultural center that has provided scintillating summer theater for 93 years and counting.
As many as 40 actors, directors, technicians and stage managers come together for a tour de force of Broadway musicals and plays at Tamworth’s The Barnstormers Theatre. This summer, The Barnstormers has five shows on the playbill, including the musical “Nunsense,” “Arsenic and Old Lace,” Agatha Christie’s “The Stranger,” “Fully Committed” and “Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery.”
The theater has been located in the former Tamworth Main Street store since 1935. Today, it features a 28-foot proscenium stage, 282 comfortable seats, air-conditioning and superb acoustics. The theater is wheelchair accessible and has a hearing-assistance loop with headsets available. The façade remains mostly unchanged. Nearby, theater-goers can check out Tamworth Distilling & Mercantile for some locally made spirits and art in the Age Café for their espresso fix.
The Barnstormers was founded by Francis and Alice Cleveland and Ed Goodnow. Francis, the youngest child of President Grover Cleveland, was already pursuing a career on Broadway when The Barnstormers made its debut in the family’s Tamworth summer home.
The Creator of “Godspell” and “Wicked” Really Digs New London Barn Playhouse
For those curious to where New Hampshire’s oldest continuously operating summer theater is located, it’s a community situated halfway between Lebanon and Concord off I-89: New London.
Stephen Schwartz — a nationally successful actor, playwright and composer whose credits include “Godspell,” “Pippin” and “Wicked” — knows exactly where it is. According to New London Barn Playhouse staff members (New London’s preeminent performing arts theater), Schwartz has been involved in a selection of their productions, and counts Playhouse staff among his friends.
Entering its 91st season, the New London Barn Playhouse promises to deliver fun-filled and engaging theatrical entertainment performed by a dedicated legion of local and national actors, directors, technicians and stage crews. This summer the Barn will feature “Guys and Dolls,” “Fully Committed,” “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” “The Wedding Singer” and “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.”
Here, “see you on the porch” means get ready to be enthralled with lively entertainment that rivals Broadway in an intimate, renovated barn where the seats are situated no more than 30 feet from the stage. Like many other summer theaters in the Granite State, the New London Barn Playhouse was created from a desire to offer this brand of arts and culture to rural communities located in the heart of vacationland. It began in the summer of 1933 and has been going strong ever since.
Opera North: Where the Met and Upper Valley Come Together
About an hour west of New London lies the charming village of Cornish, situated on the New Hampshire–Vermont border, dividing the Connecticut River. Besides the Cornish-Windsor Covered Bridge that connects the states, the town is also home to Opera North at Blow-Me-Down Farm on a hillside overlooking the iconic river.
Inside a large, circus-style tent, patrons can enjoy a variety of performances; this summer, Opera North will be showing “Cavalcade,” “Carmen” and “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel.” Summerfest 2023 also includes “Disco Inferno: A ’70s Celebration” and a special Pops concert.
Stephanie Seacord, Opera North’s marketing and public relations coordinator, said the combination of their fabulous circus tent, singers, orchestra and acrobats create an unforgettable experience inspired by the intimacy of their audiences. One patron had this to say last summer: “I usually prefer traditional opera, but this one was great fun, with superb music.”
Thanks to Louis Burkot, a glee club director and voice teacher at Dartmouth College, and David Strohmier, who directed the Parish Players, in Thetford, Vermont, Opera North was born in 1984. Eventually, a resident artist program was established as the group’s reputation grew. By the mid-1990s, Opera North’s popularity inspired the restoration of the Lebanon Opera House.
Its summer theater at Blow-Me-Down Farm began in 2017, when the U.S. National Park Service selected Opera North from a litany of organizations to partner in the creation of a park for the arts. The farm is a 46-acre property that was deeded to the adjacent Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park in the early 2000s.
“Best Theater North of NYC”: The Rep
The Seacoast Repertory Theatre in Portsmouth has only been around since 1988, but it’s quickly earned a reputation for staging New Hampshire’s most brilliant productions. In fact, many believe The Rep to be the best theatrical experience north of New York City. So much so that many Big Apple actors have relocated to the Granite State to be part of the group.
In fact, The Rep has actually launched the careers of many Broadway stars, according to a statement by Executive Artist Directors Ben Hart and Brandon James.
“The Rep hires professionals from Broadway and beyond. We regularly have big names in our shows. This season we started with a one-man show of a Robert Frost piece staring Gordon Clapp, and followed it up with ‘On Golden Pond’ with Ernest Thompson as production consultant. A college performer who was featured in last summer’s ‘Anything Goes ‘and ‘Rent’ productions just recently made his Broadway debut in ‘Funny Girl’ last week. And many, many current Broadway performers got their start at Seacoast Rep. Constantine Maroulis, Josh Young, just to name a couple.”
The Rep offers Seacoast residents and visitors musicals and plays year-round. This summer, the iconic 60s musical, “Hair,” will take center stage on the heels of “Newsies: The Musical.”
With a large assortment of talented Seacoast-area actors, The Rep doesn’t disappoint, delivering Broadway-quality shows that appeal to new theater-goers and the most seasoned drama critics alike.
To support its mission, The Rep Academy offers young aspiring actors the opportunity to study dance, musical theater, acting and voice via classes, workshops and theater camps. These actors and actresses also have a chance to showcase their talents when The Rep stages its teen and youth productions. In May, The Rep Academy staged the musical, “Guys and Dolls.”
The Rep also runs The Seniors Repertory Theatre by Theatre for Seniors. This program was curtailed by the recent pandemic, but Rep officials say it will make its return soon.
Summer theater not only lives in New Hampshire, it thrives here. If you have never experienced it, take in a performance and see for yourself.