For many, the name “Hershey” conjures up a world-class amusement park, a huge sports arena and America’s best-known chocolate.
But those looking for theater in the town named for magnate Milton S. Hershey won’t be disappointed.
The two best known are, in fact, a study in contrasts.
Hershey Area Playhouse is an intimate community space, born out of grass-roots efforts and housed in what was once a barn that was 136 years old when its conversion to a theater began in 2002.
Meanwhile, Hershey Theatre is a majestic professional venue with more than 1900 seats, envisioned by Milton Hershey as far back as 1915. Completed in 1933, it recalls the opulence of 20-century European theaters—with high ceilings and walls faced with four different types of marble.
Therefore, audience members have two spectacular choices depending on their interests and moods.
Hershey Area Playhouse traces its roots to a meeting at the Hershey Public Library on Jan. 13, 1999, organized by founder Skip Becker.
The meeting was shut down prematurely by an ice storm, but not before a group of community supporters elected a board of directors and chose a name. “Hershey Area” referred to the fact that the founders wanted to encourage theater lovers from around the area, not just the town, to participate.
And that expansive vision continues today in how the theater operates, said Susan Cort, a member of the original board who currently serves on the marketing committee.
“Everyone is welcome, whether you have no theater experience or 40 years of experience,” she said.
At first, the community theater was without a permanent home, and it traveled “from venue to venue to perform,” said Cort.
HAP’s vagabond status ended in 2002 when Michael Leader, CEO of Country Meadows, offered the use of the barn on the edge of the retirement/nursing home campus for a new permanent community theater—at the cost of just $1 a year.
“It was extraordinarily generous,” said Mark Douglas Cuddy, a member of the artistic (play-selecting) committee at HAP.
To enhance the community experience, HAP was built as a ¾-round theater, which means that the stage extends into the audience on three sides. This set up, plus the fact that the theater itself is small, provides great intimacy and connectedness between audience and players.
The theater, in other words, is perfect for putting on community productions, said Cort.
Not Sitting Dark
In contrast to HAP, the Hershey Theatre is far more traditional and ornate, as Milton Hershey built the theater to “wow,” not to offer intimacy.
The magnificent structure is festooned with marble, intricate tile-work, bas-relief images and paintings with classical themes. The sides of the auditorium were built to resemble a Byzantine castle, while the stage itself has design elements of a Venetian canal.
In addition, the theater was built not as ¾-round, but as a proscenium, a classical design in which all the action takes place directly in front of the audience. It’s also quite sizeable, seating 1,904 people.
Until the recent past, Hershey Theatre was best known for touring shows from the Great White Way. In 1954, a Broadway tour of the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s hit musical “The King and I” came to Hershey with its original star, Yul Brynner.
Things have changed somewhat since 2007, when the M.S. Hershey Foundation began to partner with the theater.
“Programming is much more diversified,” said Melissa Stradnick, public relations manager for Hershey Entertainment & Resorts.
Touring shows still arrive at Hershey Theatre, such as the upcoming revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” in January. And, despite its connection with Hershey, not all shows are family oriented; the theater also presents more adult fare like “Avenue Q” and “Spring Awakening.”
Then there is the occasional “PG-13”-type show, like “Matilda,” which played in November, said Dennis Norton, the theater’s entertainment programming manager.
“Our mission is to present the current state of what’s opened on Broadway,” he said.
“Ragtime,” based on E. L. Doctorow’s novel and scheduled for April, is part of the educational component that Hershey Theatre also embraces.
Aside from Broadway-type fare, you’ll find comedy shows, children’s shows and Hershey Symphony concerts.
“One thing we stay away from is heavy rock concerts,” said Stradnick.
Whatever is presented, Hershey Theatre is much more active than it used to be.
“It’s such a beautiful theater, that we don’t want it to sit dark,” said Stradnick. “We also try to make sure not to saturate the market with the same thing.”
Although Hershey Area Playhouse has offered some controversial shows, such as “That Championship Season,” recent programming has focused on family-friendly material. These include musicals, comedies and dramas, like this past year’s “Lend Me a Tenor” and “Oliver!” noted Cuddy, who is also a board member.
This month features two holiday-related shows: “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Charlie Brown Christmas.”
“We made the made a decision early on to attract and integrate young actors and directors,” Cuddy said. “We want to be welcoming. We’re not just for audiences, but a community theater for actors, directors and those who want to work behind the scenes.”
Aside from five main stage shows, Hershey Area Playhouse also offers less-traditional fare.
A play called “Drifting,” about traumatic sports brain injuries in sports, was to be performed at the Hershey Medical Center, but was done instead at HAP. Then there was “Edges,” a rock opera about bullying, heartbreak and other subject matter geared to young people.
HAP also has “dark night offerings,” which have included appearances of Molasses Creek, a contemporary folk band from North Carolina that holds fundraisers for the theater; Sweet Sounds concerts featuring students from Hershey High School and Milton Hershey High; and staged readings by Playwrights Alliance of Pennsylvania.
“Our mantra is, ‘All imaginations welcomed,’” said Cuddy.
For more information, about Hershey Area Playhouse, visit www.hersheyareaplayhouse.com. For more information about the Hershey Theatre, visit www.hersheytheatre.com.
One of the staples of Hershey Theatre is the annual production of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” by Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet.
This year, performances will take place Dec. 19 and 20, with the participation of the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Stuart Malina.
It’s a long-standing relationship. The Carlisle-based ballet school and company first performed “The Nutcracker” at the Hershey Theatre in December 1977, with choreography and staging by Marcia Dale Weary, CPYB’s founding artistic director.
Later, the school earned the license to dance the Balanchine version.
Since CPYB performs the beloved Christmas confection at Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts as well, why Hershey Theatre?
Several reasons, said Weary, including Hershey Theatre’s orchestra pit.
“It’s also one of the most beautiful theaters in the whole world and very large,” she said. “Some of our performances get full houses, or nearly so.”
Plus, she added, the large stage gives room for the Christmas tree to “grow” and for “snow” to fall.
“Some people think if they don’t see ‘Nutcracker,’ it’s not Christmas to them,” Weary said. “Some people come to see it every year.”