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Regional theaters make great stops

“Les Miserables,” by Michael Le Poer Trench

You don’t have to go far from home to find people putting on shows, from the local college to a dinner theater, a Shakespeare festival or a community group. And although some performances are a step or two down from Broadway-caliber, dozens of regional theaters across the country offer professional-grade productions in America’s theatrical hot spots.

The League of Resident Theaters, an association of professional regional theater companies, counts 74 member theaters in 29 states. These theaters employ directors and actors who are members of national theater guilds, ensuring levels of quality that rival New York productions. Their seasons often offer blends of classic musicals, contemporary comedies, new dramatic works and traditional holiday plays.

If your bank travel club includes theater lovers, consider visiting one of these top-notch regional theaters on your next domestic group tour or for an enjoyable evening outing at a nearby theater.

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Although it makes its home on the campus of St. Louis’ Webster University, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis isn’t a school institution. Rather, it’s a 45-year-old theater company that presents 12 shows a year, among them classic plays and musicals, experimental theater and children’s productions.

“The season mix is eclectic,” said Steven Woolf, the company’s artistic director. “We’re mixing new work with classical work and entertainment. We’re doing a pretty wide range of theatrical literature. The work in our smaller studio theater can be a smaller cast and cutting-edge work.”

The 130-seat studio theater, which can be reconfigured between shows, complements the larger 750-seat auditorium, which features a thrust stage, giving audience members opportunities for close encounters.

“The actor-audience relationship is really tight,” Woolf said. “Our cast feels it, and our audience feels it. You’re very close, in a wide-ranging thrust theater. Depending on where you sit, the stage picture is always moving and changing.”

For the new season that begins this fall, the theater will debut three shows that have just come from successful runs on Broadway. The season begins with “Red,” which won the 2010 Tony Award for best play. Next is “God of Carnage,” a hit comedy that won a Tony in 2009. Later in the season, the company will present “Race,” a 2009 play that deals with the role of race in a criminal trial.

The holidays will bring a new version of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” reworked by an up-and-coming playwright. The season’s spring musical will be “Sunday in the Park With George,” and the performing year will close with Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors.”
“It will be set in New Orleans during Mardi Gras,” Woolf said. “You might see Elvis, Paula Deen or Emeril. It will be a romp and a great way to end.”

Denver Center Theatre Company
Voices of all types are heard at the Denver Center Theatre Company, the resident theatrical group at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

“We have a commitment to doing plays written by women, by people of color and other ethnicities,” said publicity manager Heidi Bosk. “We also do a new play festival every year around February and select one or two new plays from that to be a full stage production for the following year’s festival.”

The company is also extremely busy, producing 11 plays and 13 musicals each year. This coming season will bring “A Christmas Carol,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Taming of the Shrew,” among many others. Those in-house productions complement a schedule of touring Broadway shows, giving Denver visitors great opportunities to see live theater at almost any time of year.

For groups, the company offers a variety of backstage tours and interactive options to help enhance the theater experience.

“We can do talk backs with the directors, designers and some of the actors,” Bosk said. “We also do backstage tours of the whole arts complex, which includes the symphony hall, Broadway house and other spaces. It’s about 90 minutes overall.”

Long Wharf Theatre

New Haven, Connecticut
Decades of performance and proximity to New York have made New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre an important regional institution.

“We have a long history of producing new work and a long history of transferring new work to New York stages and across the country,” said Steven Scarpa, director of marketing and public relations for the theater. “We pride ourselves on our ability to find and identify work that resounds with our audiences and that impacts the nonprofit theater industry. Other theaters pick up on plays that we produce.”

A number of the theater’s recent world premieres have gone on to New York, among them “Coming Home” by Athol Fugard and Paula Vogel’s “A Civil War Christmas,” which gives the holidays a historical American spin. Proximity to the Big Apple has also helped Long Wharf Theatre land some big-name performers.

“We attract very high quality talent — actors, directors and designers,” Scarpa said. “Sam Watterson was here in January for a play called ‘The Old Masters.’ We have a long history of working with artists of that stature — Al Pacino, Nathan Lane and John Lithgow have all been here.”

The 2011-2012 season kicks off with the classic musical “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” reworked into a cabaret-style show to better fit the 500-seat theater.

For the holidays, the company will do a radio play performance of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with live Foley artists creating sound effects using traditional objects and techniques.

From there, a production of “Macbeth” set in 1969 Vietnam will provide a new look at war through the classic tragic play. The season will also include two world premieres: “February House” is a new production about roommates, and “Sophie’s Choice” will be the first stage production based on the gripping novel and film.