More than five months after the state mandated the closure of the J. Dan Talbott Amphitheater last December, the Bardstown venue will premiere the 60th season of “The Stephen Foster Story,” its iconic musical, this Saturday.
The state cut power to the amphitheater and put up caution signs after it ruled that the old stage was not safe, citing electrical and structural issues, according to the Kentucky Standard.
Although the amphitheater’s administration had requested funds for several years, not enough work was done to repair the aging structure, which led to its winter closure.
Johnny Warren, managing artistic director for “The Stephen Foster Story,” said he was concerned the mandatory demolition and reconstruction of the facility would mean the production would be delayed for two years or more, but knew the show would go on when Nelson County agreed to take over the lease.
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“So many people lifted their voice in support,” he said. “To honor that support, we’ve worked even harder to surpass the quality of performance our audience is used to.”
Local contractors turned out to help fix the most pressing issues, including completely rebuilding two walls and putting in new wiring, Warren said.
“They swooped in like superheroes,” he said. But the stage will still have to come down after the conclusion of the 2018 season in September.
Demolition and rebuilding costs will probably come to over $750,000, Warren said, but he is confident the community will turn out for the historic site, which stages concerts and an annual Broadway musical, including "Mary Poppins" this season.
“We have faith that the support is going to be there,” he said. “I feel secure in our place in the big picture.”
Presales for the show are already up, and Warren said he feels confident regular ticket sales will increase as well for the 60th anniversary, which will include small homages to previous years’ shows in addition to an entirely new song.
This year, the musical will include the Stephen Foster song “Under the Willow,” arranged for a female ensemble, something the show has never included.
“It’s an absolutely beautiful arrangement,” Warren said.
The show tells the story of American composer Stephen Foster, who wrote songs such as “Oh! Susanna” and “My Old Kentucky Home,” the anti-slavery ballad for which the state park is named. The story focuses on Foster’s career and love affairs, and addresses the racial politics of pre-Civil War America.
“There’s a piece of history that we portray that we believe is important for people to see,” Warren said.
Many in the cast feel particularly loyal to the show.
“I’m very attached to this place,” said Charlotte Campbell, who is playing Stephen Foster’s main love interest for the second time. “It’s such a rich tradition with so much family.”
“We all get excited about seeing old friends,” said Seth Alderman, who is in his third consecutive year playing Stephen Foster. “There is that sense of home and belonging here.”
Veteran cast members also wanted to return to the show in the face of closure, which Warren called “a welcome surprise,” saying that their familiarity with the show made rehearsal easier, adding they had been weeks behind their regular schedule because of the theater’s temporary repairs.
But even with the time restraints, the show will open on a regular schedule.
“I’ve been here for 20 years, and the best experience I’ve ever had here is the reaction when we were closed,” Warren said. “What we found at the thought of losing it is truly how much our fans, even beyond this community, really care about this particular place.”
If You Go
"The Stephen Foster Story"
When: 8 p.m. select dates June 9 through Aug. 11.
Where: J. Dan Talbott Amphitheater, 411 E Stephen Foster Ave, Bardstown
Tickets: Adult $20-25; child $11-13; plus $2.50 processing fee