By Hannah Lee
It’s been 10 wonderful summers for my girls at Upper Darby’s Summer Stage, the drama camp alma mater of Tina Fey which she reminisced fondly in her memoir, Bossypants. My girls have taken separate paths, one behind the scenes — handling lights, sound, props, costumes — and one on stage. Summer Stage has left its mark and they’re the better for it. It’s now my younger daughter’s final summer and I write to say farewell.
Now in its 37th year, Summer Stage continues to delight audiences throughout greater Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley. Last October, its founder and executive and artistic director, Harry Dietzler, was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual Barrymore Awards for excellence in theater. Who would have foretold in 1975 that a 20-year-old music major at Temple University would change the horizon of musical theater in greater Philadelphia so profoundly?
Each summer, more than 30,000 audience members attend almost 40 performances, consisting of six children’s musicals, one Main Stage musical for adult audiences, a dance troupe, a cabaret, and one-act productions. It’s still an affordable way to experience live theater — cheaper than the price of movie tickets! — with up to 100 talented teens on stage, singing and dancing up a storm. Its signature song, “Magic Up Our Sleeve,” gives me goose bumps each time they sing before the lights go down. Alumni in the audience sing along unabashedly at each performance.
The children’s theater program engages 750 teens, aged 13-17, in learning skills that can sustain them throughout life, not just in specific tasks such as hanging lights and creating costumes, but also lessons in how to work hard, work with others, and project one’s ideas. Summer Stage was voted “Best Theater Group in Philadelphia” for four consecutive years on the MYPHL17 Hot List, voted by regular Philadelphians.
Seating 1,650, the Upper Darby Performing Arts Center on the campus of Upper Darby High School provides a wonderful, professional-grade venue for these lessons. It employs 100 professionals to teach and guide the campers. When I asked Mr. Dietzler about budgetary cuts from the township, he said that the program brings in enough revenue from ticket sales and sponsorship to offset any cuts.
For some years, they experimented with flying apparatus for shows such as Aladdin and Peter Pan, but I’m happy that they’ve returned to earth. Again this year, a real dog will appear as Sandy in the production of Annie, Jr. In the recent production of Seussical, Jr., the toddler son of the director, Dawn Morningstar — I love her name! — had a cameo role as the young creature hatched by Horton the Elephant.
A shout-out to Mama Moscotti, Office Manager/Nurse Extraordinaire. Farewell and my best wishes for a strong season, Summer Stage!
The remaining children’s shows this season are: Annie, Jr., How I Became a Pirate (based on the children’s book of the same name in its local premiere), and A Disney Spectacular featuring princesses, heroes, and villains. The Main Stage show, Hairspray, features actors aged 17-25. For show times and tickets, log onto their website.