From Summer Stock to Straw Hat: It’s beginning to look a lot like summer theater

Mary Mullane as Sister James, Phyllis Kay as Sister Aloysius Beauvier experience Doubt (photo by Cat Laine)

Doing a Block Island retreat. Touring the East Bay Bike Path. Exploring some of the state’s 266 hiking trails and numerous world-class gardens. Lounging on the beaches that dot over 400 miles of coastline. Experiencing WaterFire and other invigorating outdoor art installations. These are the things that make summer in the Ocean State so enjoyable.


But don’t forget to immerse yourself in some of the superb storytelling taking place inside the scattering of local straw hat, summer stock, and community theaters eager to entertain you. Here are a few productions for your consideration.

Doubt: A Parable

Gamm Theatre, 1245 Jefferson Blvd, Warwick. John Patrick Shanley’s 90-minute, one-act drama, which takes place at St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx in 1964, opens with a sermon by the affable, progressive Father Flynn. In it, he speaks about how skepticism can lead to doubt and how doubt “can be a bond as powerful and as strong as certainty.” He is talking about one’s relationship with God, of course. But these opening lines foreshadow the play’s questioning of the moral compass of its players, for the rigid and unlikable school principal, Sister Aloysius, has crafted an unsubstantiated narrative centering around Father Flynn’s improper relations with the new student. Runs May 9 thru June 2

Crimes of the Heart

Arctic Playhouse, 117 Washington St, West Warwick. This small, neighborhood theater is transformed into Hazlehurst, Mississippi, where the three Magrath sisters have gathered to await news of the family patriarch, their grandfather, who is living out his last hours in the local hospital. Lenny, the oldest sister, is unmarried at thirty and the clock is ticking; Meg, the middle sister, is back in Hazlehurst after a failed singing career on the West Coast; while Babe, the youngest, is out on bail after having shot her husband in the stomach. Yes, it’s a comedy. But not just any comedy, for Beth Henley’s script won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize. Runs May 16 thru June 2

The Motherf**ker with The Hat

Burbage Theatre, 59 Blackstone Ave, Pawtucket. “We are the area’s irreverent [professional] theater company,” claims Burbage’s artistic director Jeff Church. Case in point is its summer staging of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Motherf**ker with the Hat – a play as intentionally provocative as it is purposefully profane. It could easily be classified as a tragedy if not for its keen sense of humor. This play features low-life, foul-mouthed users and abusers, including Jackie, who is fresh out of jail for drug dealing and confidently clean and sober. That is, until he walks into the seedy apartment he now shares with longtime girlfriend Veronica and finds a stranger’s hat. This is one of those plays that makes you wince but continue to watch for fear of missing something interesting. Runs May 23 thru June 16


The Wilbury Theatre Group, WaterFire Arts Center, 475 Valley St., Providence. This romantic piece of storytelling is so unassuming that “Once upon a time” is too elaborate a preamble and its melancholic tale of star-crossed love is so universal that the young, working-class dreamers at its center are identified only as “Guy” and “Girl.” Based on the 2007 indie movie by John Carney, this Tony Award-winning musical revolves around a disheartened young street musician in Dublin, Ireland who is grieving over the loss of a girl and his lack of commercial prospects for his songwriting. That is, until he is stopped in his tracks by an absolutely adorable young Czech immigrant who reinstates his passion for music and his desire to love again. Runs May 23 thru June 23

The Cemetery Club

Newport Playhouse, 102 Connell Highway, Newport. Ivan Menchell's bittersweet comedy may be over 30 years old, but its focus on the impact that death has on three recent widows is evergreen. Set in Forest Hills, Queens, the old friends are in different stages of mourning and meet each month to visit their husbands' graves at the same cemetery. When they encounter Sam, the shy local butcher, also a widower, at the cemetery one day, it sets in motion a budding romance that could threaten the trio's friendship. Runs May 29 thru June 30

A Chorus Line

Theatre by the Sea, 364 Cards Pond Rd, Wakefield. This musical ran for 6,137 performances and 759 revival performances on Broadway, toured throughout the world, and is a mainstay in regional playhouses, community theaters, and high schools. The reason is that A Chorus Line puts the audience in the dancing shoes of 17 young performers who have survived the first round of a Broadway audition and must compete for eight remaining ensemble positions. With Edward Kleban’s clever lyrics and Marvin Hamlisch’s brilliant score, the dancers bare their souls, expose their personal inspirations for performing, and attempt to fulfill their lifelong dream. Runs May 29 thru June 22

La Cage Aux Folles

Trinity Rep, 201 Washington St, Providence. La Cage aux Folles started life as a 1973 French farce by Jean Pioret and, in 1983, became a charming, Tony Award-winning musical comedy with a book by Harvey Fierstein and music/lyrics by Jerry Herman. In it are Georges, the owner of a Saint-Tropez nightclub featuring drag entertainment, and his romantic partner of 20 years, Albin, the show’s middle-aged, falling star attraction known as Zaza. Comic opportunities ensue when Georges’ son, Jean-Michel (a mistake from an early experiment with a woman), brings home his fiancée’s ultra-conservative parents to meet them.  In a world where so many are still struggling to be who they are, which is the theme of the musical’s now iconic anthem “I Am What I Am,” La Cage aux Folles is as relevant today as it was at its conception, which would explain its remounting as Tony Award-winning Broadway musical revivals in 2004 and 2010, and the current production at Trinity Rep. Runs May 30 thru June 30

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

Rhode Island Stage Ensemble, 320 Main St, Woonsocket. As the show’s title song reminds us, Beauty and the Beast is a tale as old as time. Its story about a prince who is transformed into a hideous beast as punishment for his selfishness and must gain the love of a selfless woman to recover his humanity was first published as a fairy tale in 1740. Even its Disneyfication and transformation into a 1991 Academy Award-winning animated musical and, then, into a Tony Award-winning stage musical is getting a bit long in the tooth. But the show ran on Broadway for over 13 years, has been on national and international tour even longer, and is a favorite among community theaters like this one. Runs June 7 thru June 15

The Ruby Sunrise

Contemporary Theater Company, 327 Main St, Wakefield. On the surface, Rinne Groff’s The Ruby Sunrise is a thoughtful exploration of this country's failure to harness advances in technology to socially progressive ends. It intertwines an account of an impassioned woman’s attempt to perfect a prototype television system on an Indiana farm in 1927 with her daughter’s struggle to have her mother’s story told in a Manhattan TV studio 25 years later, during the McCarthy Era. Look deeper and you’ll see a deftly structured but heavy-treading drama about the dashed dreams and tarnished ideals of two generations of spirited Midwestern women. Runs June 21 thru July 20


Theatre by the Sea, 364 Cards Pond Rd, Wakefield. The 1982 movie Tootsie – about a difficult but talented actor so desperate for a good part that he disguises himself as a woman to land a role in a TV soap opera – earned 10 Academy Award nominations and was inducted into the Library of Congress’ United States National Film Registry because of its cultural significance. The 2019 musical theater adaptation resulted in the show lasting only a few months on Broadway. It might have been the shifting tides of sexual politics or the show’s retention of its ’80s comedy sensibilities, where the characters are outrageous stereotypes, the plot lacks complexity, and there’s a punchline per minute. No longer a monumental work, it is still a very funny play. Runs June 26 thru July 20

Nunsense – A Musical

Newport Playhouse, 102 Connell Highway, Newport. In 1985, Dan Goggin created a low-budget, no-frills musical about a song and dance fundraiser put on by five of the surviving nuns at The Little Sisters of Hoboken. They wish to give a proper burial to the last of the 52 Sisters who were accidently poisoned by their cook and are presently housed in the convent’s freezer. This show became one of the longest-running plays off-Broadway and spawned multiple, like-minded sequels that similarly serve up an abundance of corny jokes, contrived banter, and silly songs. Community theaters genuflect at the small cast, simple staging, and minimal costuming required for these productions, while patrons who just want to be entertained without all that thinking and emoting getting in the way get their wish. Runs July 10 thru Aug 29

Twelfth Night

Contemporary Theater Company, 327 Main St, Wakefield. This Shakespeare play is a merry romp with poetry and music. It is set at the turn of the 17th century on the coastal city of Illyria, and features a love triangle between Duke Orsino, the Countess Olivia, and the Duke’s manservant, Cesario. It also features one of Shakespeare’s most endearing creations, the fast-talking, truth-telling fool, Feste, and all the tropes – the clever wordplay, crossdressing and mistaken identity – we’ve come to expect from the Bard’s comedies. Runs July 10 thru Aug 18

Honky Tonk Angels

Little Theatre, 340 Prospect St, Fall River. If you’re a fan of classic country tunes, then you know that the song “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” – first recorded by Kitty Wells in 1952 – became an anthem for female singers and the title song for a 1993 collaborative studio album by Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Tammy Wynette. The album became the inspiration for a jukebox musical by Ted Swindley, featuring 30 classic country tunes sung by three gutsy women following their honky tonk dreams to Nashville. Runs July 11 thru July 21


Academy Players @ James and Gloria Maron Cultural Arts Center, 180 Button Hole Dr, Providence. Movie-turned-stage musical, Footloose is the story of Ren McCormack, a big city high schooler who moves with his now-single mom to the small town of Beaumont to live with his aunt and uncle. The town, he learns, has made dancing illegal, stemming from a terrible accident years earlier in which four teenagers died after attending a dance. Ren fights the town clergy and lawmakers to revoke this law. The score is chock full of toe-tapping pop hits written by Eric Carmen, Sammy Hagar, Kenny Loggins, and Jim Steinman.  Runs July 11 thru July 21

The Drowsy Chaperone

Granite Theatre, 1 Granite St, Westerly. Bob Martin and Dan McKellar’s 2006 Tony Award-winning play, with music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, is a thoroughly enchanting meta-theatrical musical that pokes great fun at the very art form its embracing. As such, this show is a high-wire balancing act, with actors having to perform intentionally bad production numbers well, play purposefully broad characters with realistic intent, and sell outmoded wordplay, silly slapstick, and an excess of spit-takes as if vaudeville were alive and well. All this madcap activity unfolds after a man in a chair appears on stage and puts on his favorite album – the cast recording of a fictitious 1928 musical, The Drowsy Chaperone – which comes to life. Runs July 12 thru Aug 4

The Sound of Music

Theatre by the Sea, 364 Cards Pond Rd, Wakefield. Rodgers and Hammerstein's last and arguably most popular musical began as a 1959 Broadway production that won five Tony Awards and ran for 1,443 performances. But it’s the now-iconic 1965 film version that has pretty much ruined things for every subsequent stage production. With sweeping cinematography that captures scenic Salzburg and the Austrian Alps, soaring orchestration, and brilliant casting – including the practically perfect Julie Andrews as Maria, the Nonnberg Abbey postulant-turned-governess-turned-matriarch of the family von Trapp – the Academy Award-winning film will forever be the go-to point of comparison for theatregoers. But if any playhouse can win over an audience, its Theatre by the Sea and its team of professional players. Runs July 24 thru Aug 17


Contemporary Theater Company, 327 Main St, Wakefield. Take the 2008 seven-part HBO biopic miniseries titled John Adams, the 2015 three-part History Channel miniseries titled Sons of Liberty featuring Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Thomas Jefferson, and the 2024 eight-part Apple TV+ miniseries titled Franklyn, sugar-coast the cast of characters and set their work on the Declaration of Independence to song and you have 1776. It’s a charming, old-fashioned musical where you know how it ends before it begins. Runs July 26 thru Aug 25

The Prom

Academy Players @ James and Gloria Maron Cultural Arts Center, 180 Button Hole Dr, Providence. This musical premiered on Broadway in 2018 and was good enough to receive seven nominations for a Tony Award but not good enough to win any. With a fun but relatively inconsequential score by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin – who also collaborated on The Wedding Singer and Elf the Musical – the story follows four fading, self-involved Broadway actors who seek the spotlight by traveling to a conservative town in Indiana to help a lesbian high school senior banned from bringing her girlfriend to the prom. Expect characters so moved by emotion that they sing their feelings whenever the opportunity arises, and even when it doesn’t, elaborate dance breaks, and a sentimental underscored moral at the end. Runs Aug 8 thru   Aug 18

The Normal Heart

Little Theatre, 340 Prospect St, Fall River. Premiering at New York’s Public Theater in 1985 amidst the initial outburst of HIV-AIDS, gay activist and playwright Larry Kramer’s drama was a force to be reckoned with. Autobiographical and taking no prisoners, the play indicts an apathetic government, chastises a cowardly, inactive press, and condemns a medical community too slow to respond. It also calls out gay citizens and activists too divided to be a community and too closeted to raise a collective voice. This play was meant to get your attention. It still does. Runs Aug 15 thru Aug 25

42nd Street

Theatre by the Sea, 364 Cards Pond Rd, Wakefield. Based on the shimmering 1933 Busby Berkeley movie of the same name, this musical about a musical – first staged as a 1980 Broadway production and then a 2001 Tony Award-winning revival – features a fast-talking, hard-working gang of Depression-era New York dancers eagerly attempting to break into the big time with a show called Pretty Lady. There’s production numbers galore, tap dancing aplenty, and a collection of hummable period songs written in the 1930s by Al Dubin and Johnny Mercer. Runs Aug 21 thru Sep 15

Bob Abelman is an award-winning theater critic who formerly wrote for the Austin Chronicle.