These breeding grounds for talent might be named Red Barn Theatre, Beef 'n' Boards, Enchanted Hills, Star Theatre, Haylofters, Melody Top or — in the case of one Midwestern theatre celebrating 50 seasons in 2005 — the Wagon Wheel Theatre, in Warsaw, IN.
Alumni of the for-profit Equity-affiliated summer theatre in northeast Indiana near Ft. Wayne are planning a July 22 gala reunion that will attract Broadway stars back to perform on the boards where they dreamed early dreams.
Faith Prince, who played Adelaide in the Wagon Wheel's Guys and Dolls in 1978, more than a decade before she won a Tony for the role on Broadway, will sing at the gala. Michael McCormick, who played John Adams in the recent Broadway revival of 1776, played the fiery founding father at Wagon Wheel years before his Broadway turn. He's also expected to appear in the gala.
The gala showcase July 22 begins at 7:30 PM followed by a cocktail party.
Wagon Wheel alumni Jim Walton (Broadway's Merrily We Roll Along) and Kate Shindle (of Broadway's Cabaret and Jekyll & Hyde) will also perform in the showcase (Walton stars in this summer's A Little Night Music there). Also featured at the gala will be past Wagon Wheel artistic director Tom Roland, Chicago award winning actress Ann Whitney, cabaret entertainer Beckie Menzie, current Wagon Wheel artistic director Roy Hine, and the 2005 Wagon Wheel company. Wagon Wheel, a stepping stone for many young actors, has an alumni roster that includes Gregg Edelman, Brian D'Arcy James, Donna English, Sara Gettelfinger, Sally Murphy, McLean Stevenson, Karen Olivo, Martin Vidnovic, Barb Walsh, producer Kevin McCollum, directors Mark Lamos (who started out in the orchestra there) and Mark Hoebee, and TV actors Peter Reckell and Julia Barr.
"For 50 years Wagon Wheel has been a wonderful starting place for young college aged talent to gain professional experience, often doing roles they were perfect for, but too young to do at that time," Chicago cabaret artist and gala organizer Beckie Menzie told Playbill.com. "For me, Wagon Wheel was life changing. I grew up in that area, and it certainly was not a cultural mecca. Indiana is basketball, farming and family. My formative exposure to theatre was the Wagon Wheel, and as a kid I watched Mike McCormick, Mark Sendroff and Mark Lamos among others make magic onstage. Then just a few years later as a college student, I was working there with Jim Walton, Gregg Edelman, Faith Prince. My desire to work in that field came directly from those experiences and interactions."
The theatre began as the dream of the late Major Herbert Petrie, who attended an in-the-round theatre in Washington state while touring as a band leader for a renowned brass ensemble. He returned to Warsaw with the hope of starting a similar venue in his hometown.
Wagon Wheel Theatre held its first summer stock season in 1956 when the venue was a tent with a gravel floor and canvas chairs. An old chicken coop served as the shop for sets and costumes. The orchestra consisted of Vernon Rector playing the Hammond organ. Since its inception, there has been buffet dining available in an adjacent restaurant. It was a tent theatre until 1961.
"While both the tent and the small restaurant of yesterday are gone, some things have stayed the same," according to the company's website. "Today's theatre-in-the-round and the 2517 Restaurant are now fully modern beautiful businesses ….[that] continue to offer quality entertainment and a delicious meal at a fraction of what you might pay in the city."
Today, the theatre is part of a Ramada hotel, meeting, restaurant and entertainment complex.
Tom Roland was the artistic director for many years, but for the last 10 years Roy Hine has been the artistic director of the Equity-affiliated theatre-in-the-round.
The 2005 season includes the rare Strouse and Adams musical, It's a Bird…It's a Plane…It's Superman!, plus Singin' in the Rain, On Golden Pond and A Little Night Music.
To purchase tickets for both the gala anniversary show and the VIP cocktail party (tickets are $100 per person; or $40 per person for show only) call the box office at (574) 267-8041 or (866) 823-2618.
For more information, visit www.wagonwheeltheatre.com.