SFS cast on stageAs dusk gathers and spotlights illuminate costumed actors, singers and dancers, a stage dressed with scenery and set with props emerges. Music swells; the crowd falls silent. Another summer of outdoor theatre gets underway.

“Outdoor theatre adds an entire menu of sensory experiences to a show,” said Johnny Warren, managing artistic director at Stephen Foster Productions. “Trees swaying in the summer breeze, birds chirping, crickets singing, moonlight and stars – it is magical.”

Spellbound in Kentucky

Kentucky has some of the oldest outdoor theatres in the nation, each with a history, charm and location that makes the experience unique. Productions are generally family-friendly and affordable, with many of the venues offering dinner-and-a-show tickets, a well-stocked snack bar and other onsite attractions.

Although not officially designated as such, Kentucky’s outdoor theatre trail stretches from Prestonsburg in the east to Hardin in the west, with footlight stops in Harrodsburg, Danville, Bardstown and Caneyville.

Jenny Wiley Theatre Amphitheatre, Prestonsburg

JWT Music Man smBig, sweeping musicals are the forte of eastern Kentucky’s only professional theatre offering year-round productions, a symbiosis of sound and setting that has kept audiences coming back since 1965. Located inside Jenny Wiley State Resort Park, the shows are a highlight of any stay or a reason to visit on their own. Famous names that are part of the theatre’s history include Tony Award winner Michael Cerveris and actress Sharon Lawrence (“Drop Dead Diva,” “Rizzoli and Isles”).

The 2013 lineup includes perennial favorites “The Sound of Music” (June 28-Aug. 10) and “Oklahoma” (July 12-Aug. 9). Shows play on certain dates during these runs and, if you plan your trip just so, you can catch both with back-to-back performances. An indoor summer production is offered at the convention center also located within the park: “Church Basement Ladies” plays on select dates, June 14 through Aug. 14, including several lunch performances.

Old Fort Harrod State Park Amphitheatre, Harrodsburg

Harrodsburg JamesHarrodBattleforKYweddingThe newest outdoor theatre production is taking place in Kentucky’s oldest city – Harrodsburg. “James Harrod: The Battle For Kentucky,” takes full advantage of the atmospheric setting of the replica fort built on the very land Captain James Harrod once trod.

Unfolding amidst the boom and smoke of black powder rifles, this action-packed production plays during weekends in July within Old Fort Harrod State Park.

The show dramatizes the story of the Transylvania Company’s attempt to steal Harrod’s land claims by alleging to have purchased the same from the Cherokee Nation. Lending to the authentic ambiance is the park’s old pioneer cemetery and Lincoln Marriage Temple, a structure that protects the cabin where Abraham Lincoln’s parents were wed in 1806.

Pioneer Playhouse, Danville

That Madcap MoonJohn Travolta, Lee Majors and Jim Varney once played the boards at family-owned Pioneer Playhouse, Kentucky’s oldest outdoor theatre and a state historic landmark. Founded in 1950, it was eco-friendly long before the term was ever coined, with everything from stage to seating area sporting recycled materials. Theatre grounds encompass salvaged 19th century storefronts and a rescued train station from the 1956 Elizabeth Taylor/Montgomery Clift Civil War epic, “Raintree County.”

Dinner is announced with the ringing of the Old Danville Firehouse Bell and features locally grown and sourced dishes: barbecue chicken with sweet potato cornbread, mango-cucumber coleslaw, oven roasted parmesan potatoes. Family matriarch, Miss Charlotte, shares stories and strums out folk tunes on her guitar.

This year’s lineup includes tautly-written murder masterpiece “Deathtrap” (now thru June 22); “Tamed” (June 25-July 6), Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” recast with backwoods reality TV star and Hip-Hop city girl; the comedy, “The Search for Tinker Doyle” (July 9-20); Broadway classic “Moon Over Buffalo (July 23-Aug. 3); and “Cockeyed (Aug. 6-17), a “brainy” romantic comedy.

J. Dan Talbott Amphitheatre, Bardstown

SFS Oh! Susanna smOne hundred seventy-five costumes swirl across the stage during the Broadway-style musical, “The Stephen Foster Story.” Now in its 55th year, Kentucky’s official outdoor drama pays homage to America’s first pop star, the composer who penned Kentucky’s state anthem, as well as “Oh! Susanna” and “Camptown Races.”

The scene is set, fittingly, within My Old Kentucky Home State Park, where stately Federal Hill – the home Foster visited and inspired him to write “My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!” – sits just over the rise. Published in 1853, the song is a tradition at the annual Kentucky Derby as the horses are led onto the track and generally brings tears to the eyes of any Kentuckian within earshot.

“The Stephen Foster Story” runs on dates from now through Aug. 10. Sharing the stage is “Shrek The Musical.” Based on the Oscar-winning DreamWorks film, this spirited fractured fairy tale will run on dates in July and early August.

Pine Knob Theatre, Caneyville                   

Pine Knob Diner TrainIn its 27th season, Pine Knob Theatre sits on the farm of outlaw Dock Brown, who lived in the area from 1842 until his death in 1851. The farm sits in a valley known as Hoodoo Holler. And the valley is part of a neighborhood famous for being the most complete historical community in Grayson County and settled originally in the 1780s.

Celebrating the local folklore are “Dock Brown – Legend of an Outlaw” (June 15, 22 and July 6, 13, 20) and “Down in Hoodoo Holler” (June 21, July 5, 12, 19). Other shows: the rock ’n roll musical stroll, “Daddy Took The T-Bird Away” (Aug. 3, 10, 17, 24); “Lucy and Ruth’s Dinner – LARD” (Aug. 2, 9, 16, 23); and new show, “Be Bop A Lula” (June 28, 29, Aug. 30, 31).

A pre-show pork chops and chicken Backyard Buffet takes place from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Visitors can also enjoy the buffet during the show with a train pass aboard the “Gustava,” a comfy diner that overlooks the stadium seating and the stage.

Twilight Theatre Productions, Hardin

Twilight Cabaret ProductionsFollowing its recent tradition of producing original work from playwrights who have not had a production, Twilight Theatre Productions, founded in 1967, will feature “Three Plays by Charles Messina,” June 21 to Aug. 2. Another tradition is having university students as the Company Players; directors, scene designers, choreographers and technical advisers are professionals.

Performances take place at the lakeside amphitheatre in Kenlake State Resort Park. Messina, a New York City playwright, screenwriter and director, is known for his deconstructive take on biographical subjects. Producer Shirley Teach Johnson has selected “Lilac,” “Fugazy” and, making its world premiere, “Thompson Street.” The shows will be directed by Charles Edward Hall, on leave from Radio City Music Hall.

If You Go

Jenny Wiley Theatre – Tickets: Reserved $22/adults; $20/seniors, $13/youth. At the door: $24/adults; $22/seniors; $15/youth. www.JWTheatre.com

“James Harrod: The Battle For Kentucky” at Old Fort Harrod State Park – Tickets: $10/person. www.FriendsofFortHarrod.com

Pioneer Playhouse – Tickets: $28/dinner and show; $16/show only. www.PioneerPlayhouse.com

“The Stephen Foster Story” at My Old Kentucky Home State Park – Tickets: $19-$24/adults; $11-$13/ages six-12; free for children under six. www.StephenFoster.com

Pine Knob Theatre – Tickets: $15/single; $25/couple; $10 ages six-11; children under six are free. $10/pre-show Backyard Buffet; $30/theatre and Diner Train buffet dinner. www.PineKnob.com

Twilight Theatre Productions – Tickets: $18/adults; $12/children; $37.50 show and gourmet dinner (at Kenlake). www.TwilightCabaretProductions.org

Where to eat and sleep on Kentucky’s theatre trail

Prestonsburg: Kentucky State Parks enthusiastically embraces the locally grown and sourced movement. Enjoy Southern-style vittles at the May Lodge Dining Room – Kentucky favorites like fried catfish, the cheesy Kentucky Hot Brown and bourbon-barbecued chicken. An appetizer and pizza menu is offered at Dewey’s where wine and beer are served. Overnight at the lodge or a cabin in Jenny Wiley State Resort Park, www.Parks.ky.gov; you’ll be able to walk off dinner en route to the theatre down the hill.

Harrodsburg: Sleep and eat in comfort at family-owned Beaumont Inn, www.BeaumontInn.com, and its trio of restaurants: The classic Main Dining Restaurant, more casual Old Owl Tavern and pub-like Owl’s Nest. This Southern country inn is known for its yellow-legged fried chicken, two-year-old Kentucky cured country ham, corn pudding and General Robert E. Lee orange-lemon cake.

Kenlake SRP aerial smDanville: The Farm, LLC, www.TheFarmLLC.com, a country inn farm-stay, has a special package that includes tickets to Pioneer Playhouse with an overnight in one of its specialty suites, barn and animal tour, goat’s milk ice cream social, dinner and full country breakfast for $175.

Bardstown: Beautiful Dreamer Bed and Breakfast, www.BDreamerBB.com, located directly across the street from My Old Kentucky Home State Park, offers a summer theatre special: Stay two nights Sunday through Thursday inclusive, attend “The Stephen Foster Story” or “Shrek the Musical!” and get the cost of the theatre tickets deducted from your bill. (Total discount not to exceed $38.)

Caneyville: About a 30-minute drive from Pine Knob Theatre, the Dan Krist Bed and Breakfast, www.DanKristBedandBreakfast.com in Leitchfield is a member of the Kentucky Bed and Breakfast Association, making it a good choice for those seeking a quality and memorable stay in the rolling hills of Kentucky. Best bet for dinner is to enjoy the Backyard Buffet served before the show at the theatre or buy a train pass and have dinner on the Diner Train during the show.

Hardin: Overnight at the lodge or in a cabin at Kenlake State Resort Park, www.Parks.ky.gov, where you can also enjoy dinner at Aurora Landing Restaurant. The lakeside view is elevated to spectacular with color provided by lush floral gardens.