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Theaters are Making Their Comeback

No matter how hard the film industry tries, it can’t replicate a live stage performance. The excitement that the audience feels when the curtain lifts is palpable.

Because of this distinctive experience, many fans have celebrated the return of some theater venues across the country. After most closed in March because of the pandemic, many privately owned theaters have reopened with new hygienic and social distancing protocols in place. Travel planners should keep in mind that these guidelines are subject to change at any point.

Groups looking for a way to enjoy theater and stay safe can try any of these high-quality shows.

Derby Dinner Playhouse

Clarksville, Indiana

Intimate theater-in-the-round venues have presented quite a problem for theaters across the country. Derby Dinner Playhouse’s staff had to think creatively in order to reopen in July.

“We are selling 50% capacity, which turns out to right about 30% capacity because we are selling every other table,” said Cary Wiger, sales and event coordinator for the Derby Dinner Playhouse. “We still have the buffet menu, but when the patrons order, we plate it up for them and bring it to their table. Then they can ask for seconds.”

Other safety procedures include mandated masks, frequent cleanings and air filters. The response from guests has been overwhelmingly positive, with many reporting they felt safe and enjoyed the performances.

“It gives the audience a great sense of confidence,” said Wiger. “We are doing as much as we can to reduce the risk. We tell the audience the masks really bring out their eyes. That little joke works for us and helps remind everyone to keep their mask on during the performance.”

Upcoming performances include “Christmas My Way: A Sinatra Holiday Bash,” “Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot” and “Grease.” Before each performance, a vocal ensemble called Footnotes warms up the crowd.

Now in its 46th season, the dinner theater still offers its trademark American-style cuisine, featuring fried chicken, roast beef, a salad bar, hot rolls and bountiful desserts. The theater’s staff is working on a plan to add more seats safely, since each show sells out with waiting lists.

‘The Carolina Opry’

Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

“The Carolina Opry” doesn’t need to boast — critics and audience members brag about the acclaimed Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, show all on their own. With accolades from The New York Times, USA Today and CNN, the 35-year-old show features talented performers in a variety show that spans various music genres.

The production reopened in September after being closed for nearly six months. Masks are now mandated by local ordinances, though the theater allows audience members to remove their masks while seated. The theater also requires social distancing, has limited auditorium capacity and undergoes frequent sanitation procedures.

“The Carolina Opry” is performed inside the Carolina Opry Theater, which is also home to “Time Warp,” a musical tour of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.

“‘The Carolina Opry’ is the longest-running show in the area,” said Sandy Haines, group tour sales manager for Visit Myrtle Beach. “Groups really like the Christmas show. We also have several other live theaters in Myrtle Beach.”

The Carolina Opry Theater is part of a larger beachfront entertainment destination. Many of the theaters in Myrtle Beach have also reopened using similar social distancing measures.

The Alabama Theatre started when members of the country music group Alabama wanted to return to their musical roots in Myrtle Beach. Today the theater offers a wide variety of shows, including “One the Show,” which combines lively music, expertly choreographed dancing and comedy.

Groups also enjoy “Medieval Times,” “Legends in Concert Myrtle Beach,” “The Pirates Voyage Dinner Show” and “Motor City Musical,” among many others.

Myrtle Beach also stands out as a great destination to observe social distancing year round with its warm weather and other reopened group-friendly attractions, among them the new Barefoot Queen riverboat.

‘The Great Passion Play’

Eureka Springs, Arkansas

“The Great Passion Play” has one advantage over other productions during the pandemic: a 4,000-seat outdoor amphitheater. The one-hour-45-minute show about Jesus’ death and resurrection was able to open May 22 with limited seating.

“We have a lot of space to spread people out,” said Kent Butler, associate director for “The Great Passion Play.” “We have used more gallons of hand sanitizers than I have seen in my life. It is a challenge to do a play during a pandemic, but we still see incredible responses from our audiences.”

The show ended for the year on October 31, with plans to restart the season on Easter weekend in 2021.

The multilevel-set, live-animal and full-cast epic drama is one of several faith-based attractions at the site. Groups can also look up at the 67-foot-tall Christ of the Ozarks, one of the largest Christ memorial statues. A two-hour Holy Land Tour re-creates scenes from the Bible, such as the inn at Bethlehem. Other attractions include the Bible Museum, the Sacred Arts Museum and an extensive gift shop.

The Great Hall Buffet has switched from buffets to plated dinners for groups and other visitors.

“The pandemic makes you reset your life priorities,” said Butler. “The story of Jesus gives people a lot of peace, so it’s an especially important production right now.”

‘Dolly Parton’s Stampede’

Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

Once groups sit down and take off their masks to eat at “Dolly Parton’s Stampede,” they can easily forget they are in the middle of a pandemic. They instead can focus on a four-course meal and trained riders managing incredible feats while riding 32 horses. The show takes its job of bringing smiles to faces very seriously at the Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, arena.

“One of the emcees at our show said that the only difference is that people have more elbow room than they used to,” said Ellen Liston, public relations manager for the Dollywood Company. “It’s the same great experience, just a little more spread out than in the past.”

Since the stampede performance always served guests individually, the meals run the same as before the pandemic, only with servers wearing masks. Guests continue to dine on creamy vegetable soup, homemade biscuits, hickory smoked pork loin and flaky apple pastry.

The 35,000-square-foot facility is now admitting less than 50% capacity so attendees have enough room. The show is run by the Dollywood Company, which also oversees “The Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Feud,” “The Comedy Barn Dinner Theater” and “The Pirates Voyage Dinner and Show” in Pigeon Forge and other cities across the U.S. All reopened with similar guidelines in place.

“As a company, one of the things we wanted was to be as careful as possible,” said Liston. “Folks have to wear masks to go into the theater. We are also social distancing in lines as well as inside the theater. We make sure all of the requirements are met and that everybody feels safe.”

‘Legends in Concert’

Branson, Missouri

How do you get some of the world’s most famous musicians under one roof? “Legends in Concert” has the closest experience: The celebrity tribute show has traveled to more than 15 countries and has entertained more than 30 million fans.

The show was founded in 1983 in Las Vegas before opening in Branson, Missouri, in 1996. The tribute’s stars change throughout the year, with frequent appearances by Elvis Presley, the Blues Brothers, Michael Jackson and Johnny Cash.

“Back when the show first opened, it was a different concept,” said Jill Heppner, ambassador for “Legends in Concert.” “There didn’t used to be many tribute shows out there. Our actors go to extremes to look and sound like the people they are portraying. They study everything about the artists, including the eye color, how they hold their instruments, their mannerisms and what fingers they wore rings on.”

The musical revue reopened in June with its capacity reduced by a third. The theater follows typical social distancing procedures, with hand sanitizing stations, masks and spaced seating.

“One thing I feel is slightly unique is that we have a safety inspector on the premises,” said Heppner. “He walks around making sure all the protocols are begin followed.”

Also, on the site is an eclectic doughnut shop, a VIP lounge area and a celebrity car museum, so groups can easily spend the day at the theater. Many groups also like to come before the show to see the memorabilia displayed in the lobby. The items rotate in and out; past displays have included Bo Diddley’s guitar and clothes worn by Elvis.

Fireside Dinner Theatre

Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin

One of the country’s most popular dinner theaters, the Fireside Dinner Theatre in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, has had to reimagine the way it does business. Built in 1964, the award-winning, professional theater company showcases hit Broadway musicals and revues in the round.

Fireside started offering curbside carryout dinners in April and, in June, began offering dine-in nights and a weekend concert series. Following local and national guidelines, the site is limited to 25% capacity, with mask requirements and spaced-out seating.

“The first thing that people notice when they come in is that it is a smaller crowd,” said Julie Nordeen, marketing manager for the Fireside Dinner Theatre. “It looks a little different, but it also makes the performance a little more intimate. There will be closer to 150 people instead of 600. People are so happy to come. They still get a great experience.”

Instead of buffets, the menu at the 1,000-seat restaurant is all plated dinners. Groups can also explore three permanent gift shops and one seasonal shop for a wide selection of gifts and collectibles.

The family-owned theater company is still finalizing its season for next year. Groups are encouraged to reach out to staff to talk through what is different about the experience and how it can work for them.