Upper Darby Summer Stage is one of America’s oldest and most successful theater programs for young people. It’s the center for theater arts with a huge performance program in the Greater Philadelphia area, and has trained thousands of students (ages 11 to 28) since 1976. Quite a few of the participants became actors, directors, playwrights, dancers, choreographers, musicians, teachers, and professors.
The immensely popular Summer Stage performances take place at the large Upper Darby Performing Arts Center, on one of the finest stages for miles. The venue seats 1,650 people and attracts more than 60,000 audience members each year in often sold-out performances. It’s located at Upper Darby High School, the largest in Delaware County, founded in 1895. The high school now enrolls almost 4,000 students with diverse social, ethnic, and international backgrounds. Upper Darby Summer Stage is jointly sponsored by Upper Darby Township Mayor and Council and the Upper Darby School District Board of School Directors through the Department of Recreation and Leisure Services.
Thanks to the quality of its work in over four decades, Upper Darby Summer Stage has become one of the country’s most successful youth theater programs, offering professional training at all levels and affordable family-friendly entertainment during all seasons of the year. The attendance by people of all ages has made Summer Stage “a model for communities across the nation.”
Inspired by her time as a student at Upper Darby High School (and an active participant at Summer Stage), alumna Tina Fey wrote the movie comedy Mean Girls. In her New York Times bestseller-listed Bossy Pants, she devoted an entire chapter to Upper Darby Summer Stage, entitled, “Delaware County Summer Showtime”: “All names in this story have been changed to protect the fabulous!” She also described Summer Stage as “a fantastic program that continues to this day, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.”
Summer Stage was founded 41 years ago by executive and artistic director Harry Dietzler, when he was a young 20 year old drama teacher. Every summer the wide-ranging programs attract hundreds of participants for programs on stage and behind-the-scenes at the Upper Darby Performing Arts Center.
- Apprentice Program (ages 11 and 12), with classes in acting, movement, music and storytelling, culminating in a small showcase of all skills learned.
- Rising Stars (ages 12 and 13), culminating in a performance of a children’s musical performed for parents and friends.
- Children’s Theater (ages 14-17), with a chance to become a cast member in one or two Children’s Theater musical productions “for young people, by young people.”
- MainstageProduction (ages 18-28), where aspiring actors, along with the “graduates” of the Children’s Theater, have the opportunity to audition for the Mainstage program, culminating in a full-scale production of a Broadway musical.
- Summer Stage also offers Showcase programs, including Dance Troupe (ages 11-25), Cabaret (ages 16-28), and Director’s Workshop (ages 16-28).
- Theater students with a more practical bent can participate in the “behind-the-scenes” program for Technical Theater (ages 14-18), where they will receive training in set and props construction, painting, lighting, and sound.
Over 32,000 tickets are sold each summer, with many of the shows selling out. Over 720 young people, age 12 – 28, participate in the various Summer Stage programs each year. The students live throughout the Delaware Valley, not just in Upper Darby Township. Summer Stage presents a Mainstage show plus six unique Children’s Shows—all within six weeks.
The Upper Darby Summer Stage just opened its 2016 season with NICE WORK, IF YOU CAN GET IT by Joe DiPietro, with music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin and based on materials from Guy Bolton and P.G. Woodhouse—which premiered on Broadway in April 2012. The Summer Stage show runs July 29 & 30 at 7:30 pm, August 5 at 7:30 pm, and August 6 at 1:30 pm and 7:30 pm.
The entertaining Gershwin farce is directed by Brian Walsh, choreographed by Mandie Banks and Kevin Dietzler, under the music direction of Gina Giachero. Lighting design is by J. Dominic Chacon, sound design by Amanda Hannah, set design by Timothy Bruno, props design by Patrick Ahearn, costume design by Julia Poiesz, with a huge cast of 45 actors, singers, and dancers—not to mention the orchestra of 15 musicians and the production crew of 22 members—all being stage managed by Chris Donnay, under the production management of Christopher Luner. Its star, Wesley Hemmann as the naïve but loving Jimmy Winter, and the entire cast all are so good that the audience left the theater happy and highly animated.
[Upper Darby Performing Arts Center, 601 N Lansdowne Ave, Drexel Hill, PA] July 29-August 6, 2016; udpac.org.