The curtain rises Monday at the refurbished Bucks County Playhouse

The lavishly redecorated Bucks County Playhouse reopens Monday with "A Grand Night for Singing." "As a producer, you don't get many chances to open a theater," producing director Jed Bernstein says. "This is really extraordinary."
The lavishly redecorated Bucks County Playhouse reopens Monday with "A Grand Night for Singing." "As a producer, you don't get many chances to open a theater," producing director Jed Bernstein says. "This is really extraordinary." (SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 02, 2012

Broadway producer Jed Bernstein has a dream about the Bucks County Playhouse - "I'm sitting in an Adirondack chair in the gazebo, watching the people arrive for a show."

On Monday his dream will come true - minus the chair - when the theater overlooking the Delaware River in New Hope reopens after being dark for 18 months.

Theatergoers will find a playhouse that's bright and buffed inside and out, after $3 million in renovations to restore its rustic look and charm while providing much-needed improvements.

The newly patched exterior gleams with fresh white and barnyard red paint. New gutters and downspouts shine in the sunlight. Inside, purple plush seats, matching the color of the plaster walls, replace the tattered red seats infamously held together with duct tape.

Why purple?

"We wanted a festive, different look, so people know they're sitting in a different seat, without duct tape," said Bernstein, the producing director, during a recent tour of the playhouse.

The gala reopening will come Monday - 73 years and a day after the theater opened in 1939 with Springtime for Henry, a revival that starred Edward Everett Horton.

"There will be a 7 p.m. ceremony on the front steps, open to the public, with a ribbon-cutting and a champagne toast," Bernstein said. "There will be speeches by government officials - 'the elected,' as they used to be called."

Then the audience will file in for A Grand Night for Singing, a musical revue featuring more than 30 hits by Broadway giants and playhouse supporters Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. (Critics come Friday.)

"I chose A Grand Night for Singing because I wanted to get live music back immediately," Bernstein said, "and to honor the Hammerstein family, who lived at Highland Farm [in Doylestown], and Richard Rodgers, who rented houses in Lambertville."

As in 1939, Monday's reopening will be the climax of a community push to save the crumbling former gristmill and polish it up for entertainment.

The theater, once one of the nation's premier summer stock - or "straw-hat circuit" - venues, closed unceremoniously in December 2010, when longtime owner Ralph Miller could not handle payments on the $2.25 million he owed. Several groups tried but failed to buy it, until the nonprofit Bridge Street Foundation, owned by Kevin and Sherri Daugherty of Doylestown, got it for $1.75 million.

"There hadn't been plays here in 20 years - there were musical revivals, like The King and I and Godspell, with taped music," Bernstein said. "It hasn't been an Actors' Equity [professional actors union] house for at least 15 years. Now it will be an Equity house with terrific actors - real Broadway folk."

Broadway playwright Moss Hart helped found the theater, and his play You Can't Take It With You, written with his producer/director/writer Holicong neighbor George S. Kaufman, was produced in its first season. Over the decades, its reputation was bolstered by the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Tony winner Neil Simon. It became a proving ground for Broadway-bound shows with such budding actors as Grace Kelly, Angela Lansbury, and Walter Matthau.

Simon's Barefoot in the Park premiered there in 1963, with Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley; 49 years later, it will be the second and final show for this shortened summer season. "It's a light, frothy, lovely play for the summer, and it's special to have it back," Bernstein said. "It will have the most elaborate set anyone has seen here in a while."

Audiences also will see a mural of New Hope on the stage's historic fire curtain, which had not been lowered for 15 to 20 years because it contained asbestos, Bernstein said. "It's been sealed, and the mural has been restored."

Underfoot are refinished pine planking and new carpets. Overhead, inadequate insulation has been replaced, making room beneath the new roof for a new catwalk and lighting.

"Look up, and you see a real theater with real lights and equipment," Bernstein said. "As a producer, you don't get many chances to open a theater. This is really extraordinary."

The stage has been reinforced, the electrical system raised above flood level, and a sprinkler system installed. Ramps have been added and bathrooms modified for the handicapped.

"We've been working nonstop since March, and we probably will be right up to the opening curtain," said production manager John Vivian, saying that it was just like 1939, "when the audience heard hammering going on backstage."

The balcony's unique wood railing, made of parts from the 1790 gristmill, had to be replaced and the space made ready to hold musicians or six premium seats.

But in A Grand Night for Singing, six musicians will be on stage with five actors "for all to see," Bernstein said. "I want everyone to know they're hearing live music."

Outside, the 60-car parking lot has been regraded and repaved, and a landscaped area between the theater and the former Club Zadar, with benches and lights, provides views of the river and the bridge to Lambertville.

Workers on the project, and their families, are invited to Sunday's final dress rehearsal "as a thank you for giving us this home," Bernstein said. "It will be very emotional for the actors."

Monday's celebration will have its VIPs, including Hammerstein's son Will; Moss Hart's son, Chris; and a representative of the Richard Rodgers family.

"But it will be more than VIPs," Bernstein said. "It will be a night for the community - a gift the Bridge Street Foundation has made to the community." (The Daughertys declined requests for an interview.)

Community members have responded with gifts of their own, offering posters, Playbills, and plaques that had lined the theater walls, listing each season's shows. A filmmaker's daughter provided a copy of an 11-minute movie called Straw Hat Cinderella - featuring Shirley Booth, Jinx Falkenburg, and Kaufman - set and shot in the playhouse in 1949.

 Bernstein said he and his team would track who is buying tickets to Singing, which has already been extended to July 29. "If we're lucky, one-third will live within 10 miles, and two-thirds will be weekend and summer visitors."

Some shows will do better than others, he said, but "what we're striving for is that people will always have a great time at the playhouse. They'll always walk away saying, 'That was fun.' "

They can even bring drinks (water and soft drinks until the theater gets a liquor license) to their seats - in covered cups, he added with a laugh. Plans include expanding the lobby and dressing rooms, building a river-view deck, and launching year-round entertainment in January.

The new owners and operators "are running a marathon, not a sprint," Bernstein said. Reopening a theater that has been a community fixture for decades is "a giant responsibility."

"We're doing it for the next five generations, hopefully for the five-times-five generations."


Summer Shows At the Playhouse

The regular performance schedule after Monday is 8 p.m., Tuesday-Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Friday, 8:30 p.m. Saturday. Matinees are

4 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. The theater is dark Monday.

Tickets: $29-$54; subscription prices $55-$153; for groups

of 10 or more, $21-$41.

Gala benefit performance 8:30 p.m. Thursday; pre-show cocktails 6:30 at Martine's RiverHouse Restaurant, post-show reception 10:30 at Marsha Brown's. Tickets: $275-$350.

Tickets or information at 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org.


Contact Bill Reed at 215-801-2964, wreed@philly.com, or @breedbucks on Twitter. Read his blog, "BucksInq," at www.philly.com/bucksinq.

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