In an era of skyrocketing entertainment costs — fans routinely plunk down over $100 for a major concert or Broadway show — Gretna Theatre is doing something refreshing and, admittedly, experimental.
For its 88th season this summer, the outdoor theater has lowered ticket prices.
Gretna's Producing Artistic Director Larry Frenock said the theater's staff and board of directors put a lot of thought and study into the idea.
"We've looked at the demographics, we've looked at the way people spend money in the area, we've looked at the trends in the area and, pretty much, every theater is going up (increasing ticket prices). We're going down a little bit," Frenock said. "We're going to give it a try. Our top price is $39 for any of our main-stage shows. Children's and students used to be half-price; now they're down to $10. We really want to encourage families to bring their kids."
Frenock said a major factor in lowering ticket prices is that more sponsors have been secured for 2015 than in recent memory.
How does the top ticket of $39 stack up? Last summer, the best seats in the house were $40 for a matinee, and $43 for an evening show.
A season subscription has also dropped, from $184 to $160.
"It's only $160 to see five full Broadway shows. Think about that!" Frenock said proudly. "We're really pleased to be able to offer that. And we're hoping by doing that, we'll see that many more people come through the doors and make up the difference. It's an experiment."
Those who come through the doors will see a stellar lineup and multiple Broadway actors in each show. Following is a look at the 2015 season:
Piano Men: A Tribute to Elton John & Billy Joel
Craig A. Meyer will portray Elton John, and Donnie Kehr will perform as Billy Joel. Each artist performs solo in the first act, and then join together for dueling pianos in the second act.
Meyer was in the cast of "Hairspray" on Broadway, and Kehr performed in "Billy Elliot" on Broadway.
"What I really like about this is, not only do they do this show all over the world, but they're both Broadway guys," Frenock said. "They get what we do (at Gretna Theatre). But it is a rock concert.
"They not only play together, but they play for each other. The Billy Joel character will play the music for Elton John to sing, and vice-versa. It's gonna be all their classic songs, so it's not gonna be anything you're not familiar with."
Flipside: The Patti Page Story
"Patti Page was a big, big star. She was the number-one singer in the country for a number of years in the late '50s and early '60s," Frenock said. "She introduced a bunch of different numbers, 'Tennessee Waltz' and 'Allegheny Moon' were two of her big ones. 'How Much is That Doggie in the Window?' was a novelty song that she introduced."
Greg White wrote the show, with valuable insights from Page before her death on January 1, 2013. She was 85.
"I tried to book Patti Page about four, five years ago because she was still out performing and sounding great. It just didn't work out," Frenock revealed.
White approached Page — both were Oklahoma natives — to collaborate on the show.
"She actually supplied a lot of the information in the show about her early life and her struggles in the business," Frenock said. "There's a quote from Patti Page that of all the awards she has gotten, the Grammy Awards, the accolades and everything, this show is probably the most honoring thing she can imagine, because basically her life will live forever because of this show."
Tiffan Borelli, who starred as Guenevere last summer in "Camelot" on the Gretna stage, recently agreed to be in the show. She too is from Oklahoma, saw the show in New York and expressed a desire to be in it. There will be 25-30 Patti Page songs in the show.
The Little Mermaid
Frenock calls the Disney favorite the "centerpiece" of the season. "This is our big family show," he said.
And it almost didn't happen. The rights to "The Little Mermaid" are limited by Disney, and it took the entertainment giant a long time to approve the deal.
"We spent months negotiating with the rights company to get the show," Frenock said. "We are very lucky that we persisted and persuaded them to allow us to do it. We are the first company in eastern Pennsylvania to get the rights to do it."
And there's a big name playing Ariel: the reigning Miss Pennsylvania, Amanda Fallon Smith, who is a theater major at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. But she didn't land the role because she's Miss Pennsylvania. She earned it on merit.
"It really wasn't her title that convinced us," Frenock said. "We had five or six really good candidates for the role. There was a certain timbre of the voice that we were looking to hear. Of all the people that auditioned, they were all terrific. But there was something about the timbre of her (Fallon Smith) voice that said, this is the Ariel that we want."
Fallon Smith, who won the talent portion of the Miss America Pageant, will end her reign as Miss Pennsylvania in mid-June, then arrive in Mt. Gretna June 30 to begin rehearsals.
The rest of the cast is outstanding as well. Kathryn Kendall, a Gretna favorite who was hilarious last summer in the comedy "Moon Over Buffalo," will return to play Ursula the sea witch. Thaddeus Pearson, whose prior Gretna credits include "Grease" and "Kiss Me Kate," will play Prince Eric. A young actor from Lancaster, Noah Felty, will play Flounder.
The set showing the undersea world of "The Little Mermaid" will be "eye candy," promised Frenock, because of Kyle Dixon.
"Our scenic designer (Dixon) who's been with us the last several years is coming back," Frenock said. "And I think he's done the best scenery that's ever been done in this theater. He's just spectacular, and it's a wonderful challenge to come up with that undersea world."
Girls Night: The Musical
This is a one-night-only fundraiser for Gretna Theatre and not part of the season-ticket package.
Tickets will be $35 for 2015 subscription holders, and $40 for the general public.
The all-female troupe will travel from New York to do the show, which features well-known female-empowerment songs of the past four decades.
"It's five gals talking about being girls in the world," Frenock said. "That's really what it's about. It's gonna be great fun. It's gonna be everything from disco music to ballads."
Murder on the Nile
July 30-Aug. 1
The Agatha Christie mystery is the lone nonmusical in the summer lineup. And dramas have always played well in Gretna.
"Murder mysteries have always had a great run at Gretna Theatre. I'm proud of that," Frenock said. "I know I'm always thought of as the big musical guy, but we do good theater, whether it's plays or not."
The cast will have a real local flavor. Professional actor Jake Blouch of Philadelphia, originally from Hershey, was hired for a lead role after auditioning in Lebanon in March. His grandparents are from Lebanon County and are season subscribers.
"The neat thing is, he came to the local auditions from Philly and beat out all the New York actors that we saw for the same part," Frenock said. "He's a wonderful actor."
Meanwhile, Lebanon resident Larry Sheaf, a fixture at Lebanon Community Theatre, auditioned and landed the role of Dr. Bessner.
Sheaf didn't get the role because he's a local favorite. He earned it on merit.
"Larry, we've known for years. He's our dramaturge. He writes about the shows for us (in the program)," Frenock said. "He was the best (for the role), he did the job. He's a wonderful actor."
Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash
Talent abounds in this show as the six performers on stage can play multiple musical instruments.
"Some of them play four or five instruments," Frenock said. "It's amazing the talent we've been able to gather for this show."
Broadway's Scott Wakefield, who starred in the "Will Rogers Follies" at Gretna, is returning. He is the show's director and musical director, in addition to starring in the show. He was in the original "Ring of Fire" on Broadway.
"It's a biography of Johnny Cash — in a way — because it's told through his music," said Frenock, noting that the show is mostly music with little dialogue. "It's less about the storytelling of Johnny Cash in speaking words, and more about the storytelling of Johnny Cash through his music. It's virtually a Johnny Cash concert."