It's the time of year when men and women of both sexes take to the woods to don outrageous costumes and desport themselves before young and old alike. It's the season when robust, comely and eager youth are taught a few tricks by old masters. It's the calendar quarter filled with chirping crickets, buzzing bees, fluttering wings, and kicking thighs in fishnet stockings. Yes, these are the sounds and sights of a hot night for patrons of summer stock theater.
The Straw Hat Circuit, as it sometimes is called, is a mainstay of the traditional Midwestern summer, and has been for decades. Fortunately for regional vacationers, the tradition of summer stock in barns, tents and other venues remains very much alive throughout Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan, where long-lived summer stock companies often achieve the status of beloved local institutions. These traditional summer stock troupes are not to be confused with Shakespeare festivals and summertime classical theaters ( covered separately in this issue ) . Consider the following as you make touring plans this summer, listed alphabetically.
American Folklore Theatre, Peninsula State Park, Fish Creek, Wisc., June 17-August 31Original, family-friendly 60-90 minute musicals based on American and Wisconsin life and lore, presented in an open-air theater ( with cushioned seats ) . This season: Packer Fans from Outer Space, Guys on Ice and Ya, ya, You Betcha! Tickets: $12, sold an hour before show time; 920-854-6117; www.folkloretheatre.com . Free bug spray.
Barn Theatre, Augusta, Mich., through September 14Classic, mostly musical summer stock in a comfy ( air conditioned ) old dairy barn in rural Michigan, just west of Kalamazoo. This season ( the 58th ) : The Rocky Horror Show, Escanaba in the Moonlight, Cats, Annie, Bayhouse ( play ) , jesus Christ Superstar, and Cabaret. Tickets: $25 & $27.50. Stay for a post-show drink in the bar. 269-731-4121; see Web site www.barntheatre.com .
Cherry County Playhouse, Muskegon, Mich., July 15-August 9Large-scale musical productions with top castsincluding occasional star namesare offered in 1,750-seat Frauthenthal Center, a beautifully restored 1930 Spanish-Moorish theater. It's the third home for Western Michigan's Cherry County Playhouse, which began life in a tent. This season ( the 49th ) : Oklahoma, Barnum, Guys and Dolls and Chicago. Tickets: $11-$48; 800-585-3737 ( toll free ) ;
Little Theatre on the Square, Sullivan, Ill., June 4-August 17A company of youthful professionals performs musical summer stock in a small theater facing the courthouse square of a classic Midwestern small town ( complete with Civil War monument ) . Now almost 50 years old, the Little Theatre ( air conditioned! ) offers Oklahoma; The Pirates of Penzance; I love You, You're Perfect, Now Change; Grand Hotel and Grease. Sullivan is close to Springfield, Champaine and Decatur. Tickets: $22-$25; 1 ( 888 ) 261-9675; www.thelittletheatre.org . Separately, theater founder Guy Little and his partner now run a luxurious Victorian B&B ( swimming pool ) at the edge of town, the Little House on the Prairie.
Mason Street Warehouse, Saugatuck, Mich., July 2-August 17This is the debut season for gay producers Tom Mullen and Kurt Stamm, and their 199-seat venue in beautiful, downtown Saugatuck. They are casting in Chicago and New York for I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change; the Mae West inspired Dirty Blonde; and a revue called Our Sinatra. Mullen ( a Michigan native ) and Stamm have substantial New York credits as producers and directors, but now call Saugatuck home. Tickets: $25; ( 269 ) 857-4898; www.masonstreetwarehouse.org .
New Harmony Theatre, New Harmony, Ind., June 13-August 17Deep in Southern Indiana on the banks of the Wabash River, historic New Harmony ( near Evansville ) began life as a 19th Century Utopian community; a center of arts, science and learning. The arts continue each summer in Murphy Auditorium, featuring a company of New York, Chicago and regional actors. This season: The Foreigner, The Eccentricities of a Nightengale ( Tennessee Williams ) , and A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine ( musical ) . Tickets: $20 & $22; 877-648-7469; www.newharmonytheatre.com .
Peninsula Players, Fish Creek, Wisc., June 17-October 12Wisconsin's leading professional summer theater hugs the shoreline of Green Bay in Door County, offering all-weather pavilion seating. This season ( the 69th ) : The Odd Couple, A Man for All Seasons, Caught in the Net ( British farce ) , Proof and The Taffetas. Peninsula Players is the summer home of some of Chicago's favorite award-winning actors, among them Tom Mula, William J. Norris, Dale Benson, Greg Vinkler and Carmen Roman. Tickets: $22.50 & $28.50. Come early for sunset over the lake, stay for the post-show bonfire. 920-868-3287; www.peninsulaplayers.com .
Red Barn Playhouse, Saugatuck, Mich., June 6-August 28Michigan again, and another real barn offering musical summer stock, near the shores of Lake Michigan and the dune-struck, gay-friendly summer colonies of Saugatuck and Douglas. This season ( the 63rd ) : Nunsense, Once Upon a Mattress, Forever Plaid, Quilters, and one more show. Tickets: $20; 269-857-7707; www.redbarnplayhouse.com .
Round Barn Theatre, Amish Acres, Nappanee, Ind., through December 31The performances of popular musicals may be so-so, but the cathedral-like antique Amish round barn is a glory of American domestic architecture. The season includes The Secret Garden, Grease, Guys and Dolls, Singin' in the Rain, and The Wizard of Oz. You can just see the show, or add on an all-you-can-eat Thresher Dinner of American comfort food ( GREAT pie! ) , or spend the entire day ( and night ) at Amish Acres, kind-of an Amish Williamsburg. Much to see and do. Heavy antiquing in Nappanee. Tickets ( show only ) : $25; 1 ( 800 ) 800-4942; Web site www.amishacres.com .
Timberlake Playhouse, Mt. Carroll, Ill., June 5-August 23This indoor playhouse of 375 seats, near Galena and the Mississippi, offers wide-ranging musical and dramatic fare, performed by young professional talent working under veteran directors, many of them from Chicago. This season ( the 42nd ) : Singing in the Rain, The Crucible, Fame, Private Lives ( by Noel Coward ) , State Fair and Late Nite Catechism. Tickets: $15; 815-244-2035; www.timberlakeplayhouse.org
Bring bug spray and a sweater against the cool night air!