The ‘Highway’ leads to Mount Gretna: An introduction to Gretna Theatre

By on June 27, 2018

This first in a series of five reviews of the 2018 Gretna Theatre season — something new to Lancaster County Weeklies — will serve as both an introduction to the theatre and its 2018 season as well as a look at the most recent production of “Hank Williams: Lost Highway.”

It just so happens the summer of 2018 is turning out to be the season of Mount Gretna for me.* After not stepping foot in the wooded hamlet just over the county line in Lebanon for more than two decades, I now can’t seem to stay away.

During a Father’s Day stop on my way to drop off my son at nearby Camp Shand, I learned my friend Chef Brad Beamenderfer (formerly of Copper Hill Public House and Fatpigs BBQ) now owns and operates the Porch & Pantry eatery — a Mount Gretna staple. In the same week, I received an invitation from Gretna Theatre to check out their 2018 lineup of shows, which kicked off June 21 at 2 p.m. with the historical-musical-bio “Hank Williams: Lost Highway.”

During my Father’s Day visit, just before the production took stage, I poked around the theatre while sets were still being built to get a glimpse of what I could be experiencing. It didn’t take much to realize Gretna Theatre is like no other theatre in the area.

History lesson

Continuously operated since 1927, the original “playhouse” actually dates back more than 100 years when it was built to be the centerpiece of the Pennsylvania Chautauqua. The Chautauqua Movement was founded in the late 1800s by New York visionaries Lewis Miller and John Vincent to provide education “to people of all ages and backgrounds.” In 1891, community leaders decided to organize the Pennsylvania Chautauqua in Mount Gretna “for the advancement of literary and scientific attainment among the people and the promotion of popular culture in the interest of Christianity.”

The playhouse, originally called the Chautauqua Auditorium, was designed by Lebanon-based civil engineer John Cilley and completed in July of 1892. In the spring of 1927 the amphitheater-style playhouse enlisted the help of Lancaster actor/director A. E. Scott to make alterations to the theatre, including a raised stage and dressing rooms.

Billed as “one of the oldest summer theatres in America,” Gretna Theatre is reliant on the summer season as the theatre is open-aired. Roofed and equipped with massive air-moving fans the facility was quite comfortable for the opening of “Hank Williams: Lost Highway.” Yes, Gretna Theatre shows open on a Thursday afternoon followed by an evening run and usually three more runs over the weekend.**

The show

“Hank Williams: Lost Highway” is a historical look at the life of one of the country’s greatest musicians, Hank Williams (Stephen Hardy). The show starts with the announcement of Williams’ death over the airwaves and a bit of backstory leading up to the start of his career as we meet Teetot (Denver Taylor), a hometown influence on the country crooner and Williams’ Mamma Lilly (Heidi Hayes), who is a lovable bit of comedic relief in a story heavy with substance abuse and the rigors of success.

Williams’ band, comprised of Hoss (Ben Sheppard), Shay (Spiff Wiegand), and Jimmy (Tommy Crawford) — the slapstick component of the musical — make a run to the Grand Ole Opry stage. On their way, Williams meets up with love interest Audrey (Casey Furlong) and the drama sets in.

The actors, a melodic ensemble of powerful voices, make their way through snippets and whole numbers of more than 20 Hank Williams songs, from worldwide-recognizable standards like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” to forgotten hit classics like “Settin’ the Woods on Fire.”

Hardy is no stranger to the front man role, having performed as Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley in past productions of “Million Dollar Quartet.” Taylor shows his great range, subtle yet powerful, in the open-aired theatre, which creates a unique sound perfect for raw talent.

Gretna Theatre is a cross between a destination stage and a regional theatre, where the level of talent is high. While “Hank Williams: Lost Highway” was a show for Americana buffs and those with a deep interest in country music, the theatre’s next show is an almost polar opposite.

Coming soon

“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” an Anton Chekov-inspired comedic play written by Christopher Durang, swirls through family dynamics like a therapist in a tornado. The show, which opens June 28, features Robert Meksin as Vanya, Dori Legg as Sonia, Carol Halstead as Masha, and Max Falls as Spike. Supporting the cast of principal players are Jessica Johnson as Cassandra, and Grace Atherholt as Nina.

Rounding out the Gretna Theatre season this year are three more shows: the Broadway classic “She Loves Me” opening July 12; a purported mix of Hitchcock and Monty Python in “The 39 Steps,” opening August 2; and the one-man show of “An Evening with Groucho” by Frank Ferrante on August 23.

* See also this week’s “Hop’in Around.”

** The exception is “She Loves Me,” which runs two weekends at the end of July.

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