During the first show of the new summer season at the Open Air Theater in Washington Crossing State Park, “Annie Jr.,” the actress playing Annie entered Daddy Warbuck’s mansion. Instead of saying the usual line, “Is this a railroad station or am I dreaming?” she exclaimed, “Am I dreaming or is this a state park?” Not only is it a state park, Annie, but as the new co-manager Richard Atkins describes it, “It’s gorgeous. There is a backdrop of trees going up a mountain and a stream runs in front of the stage.” The theater seats 875 people and you may want to bring a cushion, but there are benches with backs. So it’s not totally rustic.
The idea of an old-fashioned daisy chain of vintage musicals in a glorious outdoor setting and for an unbelievably low price of admission is certainly enticing. Long-time theater entrepreneurs Akins and his business partner Ralph Miller have joined forces to produce professional productions of 10 musicals on weekends through Labor Day. Past summers have found this natural amphitheater being used by various community theater groups but this summer Akins and Miller bring a professional touch and a busier schedule to this venerable venue.
Miller and Akins are longtime friends who have not worked with each other for over 30 years (when both appeared at the Bucks County Playhouse). Miller is the current owner and producer of both the Bucks County Playhouse and the Pocono Playhouse in Mountainhome, Pennsylvania. Recently, Akins has moved back to this area, to Lawrenceville. So when his friend called with the proposition of this summer theater project, the two came together “in the dead of winter” to visit the natural amphitheater and were blown away by the possibilities. “When we saw it, our jaws dropped because it was magnificent, and I said, ‘This is the best kept secret in Mercer County,’” says Akins in a phone interview. With this summer’s impressive schedule of main stage musicals in the summer evenings, as well as special children’s theater in the afternoons, they trust the secret will be out.
With artistic director Stephen Casey (who also serves in the same capacity for Miller’s other two playhouses), they chose a slate of musicals that sing to a simpler time in America — from “The Music Man” to “The King and I” to “The Sound of Music.”
“Ralph and I are both 60,” says Akins. “We want to create a slice of Americana like the one that we grew up with that doesn’t exist anymore.” With that in mind, they have also selected old-fashioned treats for the concession stand. Instead of elaborate ice cream concoctions mixed with sprinkles and cookies, they’ll sell Dixie cups, Fudgesicles, and Creamsicles. The candies offerings include Good ‘n’ Plenties not Air Heads. For the children’s shows, dubbed “The $8 Hot Dog Matinees,” each ticket holder will get to enjoy the show — plays like “Fee Fi Fo Fum — The Story of Jack and the Beanstalk” to kids’ versions of “The Wizard of Oz” and “Alice in Wonderland” — plus that hot dog and a drink.
The producers hope to create a place where “a family can go on a summer evening and see a professional Broadway-style production and not have to get a co-signer for a bank loan to do it,” says Akins. Tickets for the evening performances are $12 for adults; $8 for children, senior citizens, and group sales. Theatergoers are encouraged to come early. “There is a lot to see in Washington State Park,” says Akins, mentioning the nature center and museum as well as a playground. Families can picnic before the show but he hopes they’ll also buy a few extras at the concession stand where Akins’ daughter, Alexandra, is in charge. In the fall, she returns to Franklin and Marshall College where she is a pre-med student. He willingly admits that he has encouraged his three children to careers anywhere but in show business. “They were all in shows as kids but I convinced them to get a real job.”
Akins has been in love with theater for a long time. “I was a troublemaker in high school and my English teacher, Mrs. Rufe, got me involved in the drama club and that was it.” Growing up in Bucks County, the Playhouse was the theater next door.
His family had no connections to theater. His mother was a homemaker; his father, a salesman for Hallmark Cards. His younger brother and sister have also made careers in the “regular” world. Straight from high school in 1965, Atkins went to work in New York City for CBS, first in the mailroom, then as a cue card boy for “Captain Kangaroo.”
Vietnam intervened. After the war, he began his career as a theater and concert producer. Atkins recalls fondly when his friend Miller lured him onstage at the Bucks County Playhouse in 1981 to play the role of the disc jockey Vince Fontaine in “Grease.” Atkins demurred to his friend, “He’s just in the opening of the second act.” Miller countered, “You don’t have to come until intermission.”
Still not convinced, Atkins complained, “Then I’d have to wait around for the curtain call.” Giving in, Miller agreed that he didn’t have to stay for that either. He was “sold.” You can find a photo to prove that if you visit the history section of the Bucks County Playhouse website. Later, Atkins also appeared as Oscar Madison in the Playhouse’s production of “The Odd Couple.”
But his heart was in working behind the scenes and “pulling the strings” as a producer and director. From 1989 until 1997 Atkins was the owner/producer at the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater (which became the Burt Reynolds Jupiter Theater, then just the Jupiter Theater) in Jupiter, Florida. His producing duties have taken him to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and the Westbury Music Fair in New York State, among other venues. Atkins says, “I’ve been doing this forever.”
Another project still in development is a musical called “Colour My World,” written by Jeff Arch (best known for the script of “Sleepless in Seattle”) and featuring the music of the group “Chicago.”
Atkins brings a lot of enthusiasm to the Open Air Theater. Other productions this summer include: “The Fantasticks,” “Baby,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Forever Plaid,” and an all-male specialty, “Nunsense Amen!” The season will wrap up the weekend of Thursday through Sunday, August 30 through September 2, with an American Musical Theater salute, “A Grand Night for Singing,” celebrating the 100th birthday of American theater icon Richard Rodgers, and featuring the wonderful music that he wrote with Oscar Hammerstein.
Open Air Theater
Washington Crossing State Park, Titusville, 609-737-4323, www.buckscountyplayhouse.com. Tickets $12. See website for children’s programming.
The Music Man. Through Sunday, June 17.
An Evening with Ben Franklin. The timeless wisdom of the famed author and inventor presented by Ralph Archbold. Raindate is Monday, June 25. Free. Monday, June 18.
The King and I. Thursday, June 21, through Sunday, July 1.
Nunsense...A-Men!, Thursday, July 12, through Sunday, July 15.
The Sound of Music. Thursday, July 19, through Sunday, July 29.
The Fantasticks. Thursday through Sunday, July 5 through 8.
Baby. Thursday to Sunday, August 2 through 5.
Annie Get Your Gun. Thursday, August 9, through Sunday, August 19..
Forever Plaid. Thursday through Sunday, August 23 through 26.
A Grand Night for Singing. Thursday, August 30, through Sunday, September 2.
Bristol Riverside Theater
120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, 215-785-0100, www.brtstage.org.
Summer Musicale. “Ellington by Starlight.” $29. Thursday, July 5, through Sunday, July 15.
Summer Musicale. “Those Were the Days: From Motown to Malibu.” $29. Thursday, August 2, through Sunday, August 12.
Bucks County Playhouse
70 South Main Street, New Hope, 215-862-2041, www.buckscountyplayhouse.com.
Crazy for You. Musical. Wednesday, June 13, through Sunday, July 1.
Mercer County College, 609-584-9444, www.kelseyatmccc.org.
Psycho Beach Party. Charles Busch’s beach blanket parody is part of the fifth annual benefit for the James Tolin Memorial AIDS Fund. Opening night includes a luau-themed reception, music by Chuck Easter and New Atlantis, and a silent auction featuring items donated by celebrities including Robin Williams, Carol Burnett, and Charles Busch. $35. Friday and Saturday, June 22 and 23.
The Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare ‘70. $12. Friday, June 29, through Sunday, July 8.
The Sound of Music. Yardley Players. $16. Friday, July
Bat Boy:The Musical. Stars in the Park presents the musical about a half boy, half bat found in a cave. $16. Friday, July 27, through Sunday, August 5..
Once on This Island. Pennington Players presents the musical romance between a peasant girl and a rich city boy. $16. Friday, August 17, through Sunday, August 26..
5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell, 609-466-2766, www.off-broadstreet.com.
Run for Your Wife. Ray Cooney’s British farce about a taxi cab driver with two wives both living in London. $25.50 to $27.25. Friday, June 15, through Saturday, July 21.
Capestro Theater, Roosevelt Park, Route 1 South, Edison, 732-548-2884, www.playsinthepark.com. Bring a chair. $5 adults; $4 seniors; children free.
The Buddy Holly Story. Tuesday, June 26, through Saturday, July 7.
Once Upon a Mattress. Wednesday, July 18, through Saturday, July 28.
Thoroughly Modern Millie. Wednesday, August 8, through Saturday, August 18.
Princeton Summer Theater
Hamilton Murray Theater, 609-258-7062, www.princetonsummertheater.org. $16 to $18.
Bell, Book, and Candle. Romantic comedy based on the 1958 film. Through Sunday, June 24.
Biloxi Blues. Neil Simon drama. Thursday, June 28, through Sunday, July 8.
Ten Little Indians (And Then There Were None). Agatha Christie thriller based on the poem. Thursday, July 12, through Sunday, July 29.
Art. Yasmina Reza’s drama about friendship. Thursday, August 2, through Sunday, August 12.
Farnsworth Avenue, Bordentown, 609-298-4456, www.projectmom.net.
The Faculty Room. A two-act comedy that shows what goes on behind closed doors at a faculty meeting. $10. Friday through Sunday, June 22 through 24.
of New Jersey
Drew University, Madison, 973-408-5600, www.shakespearenj.org.
At the F.M. Kirby Theater:
The Play’s the Thing. Ferenc Molnar’s farce directed by Joe Discher. $28 to $52. Through Sunday, July 1.
Measure for Measure. Shakespeare’s dark comedy. $28 to $50. Tuesday, July 10, to Sunday, July 29.
The Bald Soprano. Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist comedy. $28 to $50. Tuesday, August 7, to Sunday, August 26.
At the Greek Theater, College of St. Elizabeth, Morris Township.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Abridged version of Shakespeare’s comedy presented at an open-air amphitheater. Preview. Tuesday, June 19, to Sunday, July 22.
Somerset Valley Players
Amwell Road, Hillsborough, 908-369-7469, www.svptheatre.org.
All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. A musical about ordinary life. $9. Through Sunday, June 24.
Villagers Black Box
475 DeMott Lane, Somerset, 732-873-2210, www.villagerstheatre.com.
Tape. $16. Friday, July 6, through Saturday, July 21.