There’s a timeless appeal to a foot-tapping musical like “Oklahoma,” a Neil Simon comedy or tales of Pippin’s search for adventure and passion. The beach town tradition of live summer theater is a timeless one, too, offering regular summer entertainment today in all parts of the state on stages that date back to the region’s earliest tourism days, times when vaudeville shows drew crowds to art deco beauties and live theater was sharing stages at the Bay View Chautauqua near Petoskey with orators like William Jennings Bryan.
One of Michigan’s most ornate theater venues — the Ramsdell Theatre in Manistee — gets high marks for its proximity to a restored Victorian downtown and wide stretch of sandy Lake Michigan beach, as well as for the later success of those who’ve performed there. James Earl Jones credits his youthful days as a stagehand, then actor, with overcoming his notorious childhood stutter. The Manistee Civic Players will perform “Pippin” in late June and early July, “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” on several August dates and “Deathtrap” in October.
Some stages offer enough regular summer performances to meld with most any vacation schedule, other special events made even more special by the historic venue. The Calumet Theater on the Keweenaw Peninsula is among them, built in 1898 when copper mining was bringing such wealth (and so many of the wealthy class) to the community that residents decided they needed an opera house. When it opened with a Broadway touring production in 1900, some 30,000 people lived within walking distance, and today, some 65 events are performed each year.
In Marine City near Port Huron, shows at the Riverbank Theater are performed inside a one-time bank building with art deco touches. Elsewhere, youthful talent is the draw. Holland’s Hope Summer Repertory Theatre is a summer favorite for its blend of student artists and professionals, this year performing “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Annie” and more.
And in Sault Ste. Marie, local actors perform on the same stage on which vaudeville actors once kept audiences transfixed. The Soo Theatre is the only remaining vintage playhouse in the eastern Upper Peninsula but was for a while run as a movie theater, closing its doors in 1998 after its final showing — the movie version of the “Wizard of Oz.” Now dedicated to community performing arts, this year’s stage performances will include Robin Hood and, fittingly, “The Wizard of Oz.”