Take a Cross-Country Road Trip to 11 American Theaters This Summer
Here's your itinerary for the ultimate theater adventure.
The cross-country road trip is the classic American odyssey, undertaken by sojourners from John Marsh to Britney Spears. If you're considering joining their ranks this summer, we suggest visiting these 11 theaters along the way. There's no better way to experience America than to witness Americans creating and enjoying theater. So go west young TheaterManiac, and see plays with the rest of the country.
Starting Point: New York City's Delacorte Theater
Begin your journey in Central Park with Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub's Twelfth Night, a new musical adaptation of Shakespeare's gender-bending romantic comedy (running July 17-August 19). Before she was tapped to collaborate with Elton John on the new musical The Devil Wears Prada, Taub wrote rollicking music and memorable lyrics for this story of travelers shipwrecked in Illyria. These strangers are determined to make new lives in this strange land — so Twelfth Night is the perfect send-off for your transcontinental voyage.
Stop 1: Pottstown's Sycamore Hill
For the last several years, Theater With A View has mounted intimate outdoor productions at Sycamore Hill, a 12-acre estate just south of Pottstown, Pennsylvania. Their latest production is Martín Zimmerman's On the Exhale (July 12-28). A solo play about gun violence, it follows a liberal-college professor who navigates her simultaneous disdain for and attraction to firearms. Experience theater at the truly personal level...in someone's backyard.
Stop 2: Washington, DC's Kennedy Center
Our nation's capital is a must-see in any cross-country trip, and Hamilton (currently running at the Kennedy Center until September 16) is the must-see musical of the decade. Composer Lin-Manuel Miranda unpacks the story of America's first treasury secretary with an original hip-hop score. Andy Blankenbuehler's truly revolutionary choreography brings American history to life in this unrelenting musical that Michelle Obama calls "the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life." Where better to see this mega-hit than in the city Hamilton helped to create through a backroom deal with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison?
Stop 3: Chillicothe's Sugarloaf Mountain Amphitheater
Cross the Appalachians and drive into the heart of rural Ohio for one of the hidden gems of American theater: Tecumseh! is currently in its 46th summer at the Sugarloaf Mountain Amphitheater. It tells the story of the legendary Shawnee chief using a giant cast, live pyrotechnics, and real horses. While Hamilton was dreaming of a grand nation spanning the continent, Tecumseh was planting the seeds of a Native American confederacy that nearly succeeded in repelling white settlement in the Midwest (the chief's death is immortalized in the Capitol rotunda, which we hope you visited on the last stop). You won't want to miss this epic outdoor bio-drama about a crucial figure in American history (running until September 2).
Stop 4: Chicago's Oak Park Festival Theatre
No tour of American theater would be complete without a stop in Chicago, which consistently produces some of the most innovative work in the country. This summer, the Oak Park Festival Theatre is mounting a revival of Carlyle Brown's The African Company Presents Richard III (July 28-September 1). Inspired by real events, it's about an all-black production of Shakespeare's Richard III that becomes a hit in 1821, only to be challenged by a rival all-white production next door. See it under the stars in the urban oasis of Chicago's Austin Gardens.
Stop 5: The Muny of St. Louis
Pass through the Gateway to the West and into an iconic American theater: With 11,000 seats (five times that of the largest Broadway theater), the Muny is the biggest outdoor theater in the United States. Now celebrating its 100th year, the Muny has a bang-up summer season planned, including Annie (July 18-25), Gypsy (July 27-August 2), and (naturally) Meet Me in St. Louis (August 4-12). See Broadway-caliber theater for a fraction of the price…or nothing at all: The last nine rows of the theater (1,456 seats) are offered completely for free.
Stop 6: Kansas City's Starlight Theatre
With just 7,958 seats, the Starlight Theatre is cozy compared to the Muny, but it's still a great place to see Broadway on a grand scale. This summer's upcoming shows are Hairspray (July 27-August 2) and the Phantom sequel Love Never Dies (August 14-19) for the stragglers. We recommend not being a straggler: Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's hit parade of a score to Hairspray is just the auditory fuel you'll need to get through the flat expanses of Kansas and up into the Rocky Mountains.
Stop 7: Denver Center for the Performing Arts
In the very heart of Denver sits one of the grandest performing-arts complexes in the country, with an opera house, a concert hall in the round, and six smaller theaters. Denver Center hosts great theater year-round, and this summer is no exception: Audiences can see the Gloria Estefan bio-musical On Your Feet (August 8-19), which takes over the Buell Theatre from the national tour of Les Misérables (July 25-August 5). If you're looking for something locally produced, simply go around the corner to the Space Theatre, where Phamaly Theatre Company is presenting an intimate in-the-round revival of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods (July 12-August 5).
Stop 8: Utah's Sundance Summer Theatre
Most famous for its namesake festival of independent films, Robert Redford's Sundance Mountain Resort also hosts an outdoor summer theater, where you can watch classics of the American stage surrounded by pine tress with the majestic Mount Timpanogos looming in the background. This year's production is Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! (July 19-August 11), which is not exactly Utah, but is sure to sound great reverberating through the fresh mountain air.
Stop 9: Las Vegas's Caesars Palace
Broadway snobs may turn their noses up at it, but Las Vegas is undoubtedly near the top of the list when it comes entertainment destinations in the USA. There are so many shows to choose from, but we suggest Spiegelworld's Absinthe, which is currently playing an open-ended run at Caesars Palace. Taking place under its own tent within the Caesars complex, Absinthe marries the burlesque sensibilities of a bygone era with cutting-edge circus performance to create a show that is very hip, very naughty, and very Vegas.
Final Destination: Los Angeles's Mark Taper Forum
Like so many pioneers and dreamers before you, your journey ends in California. When you get to Los Angeles, be sure to visit the Center Theatre Group's Mark Taper Forum to see the LA debut of Lynn Nottage's Sweat. The 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama, Sweat tells the story of a group of Pennsylvania factory workers whose lives are radically altered over the course of a decade of rapid economic change. Appropriately, it begins performances just before Labor Day (running August 29-October 7). As summertime fun cedes to fall work, the play is sure to give American audiences and workers plenty to consider.