Upper Darby Summer Stage is a long-standing cultural staple in the area that, for more than four decades, has helped everyone from kids to young adults become well-versed in theater. It’s even led to at least one marriage and counts Tina Fey among its alumni.
This is its 45th season, and even in a pandemic, the show will go on. Things are different this summer, with virtual classes and virtual performances. But Upper Darby Summer Stage will continue to allow hundreds of people — ages range from fourth graders to 28-year-olds — to participate in almost all facets of theater production.
It’s not just for Upper Darby residents, either. Program director Harry Dietzler, who has overseen the program since its inception, estimates that half of last year’s 800 participants were from other areas.
Dietzler, who runs the Upper Darby Performing Arts Center, began Summer Stage as a 20-year-old looking for a way to keep his creative juices flowing in the summer.
“We saw this empty theater and said, ‘Let’s put on a show,’” he said.
What a show it has been.
Dietzler proposed a program, and it kept expanding. He now works full time for the Upper Darby School District and Upper Darby Township.
“We usually put on six different children’s shows, and then we also have an adult musical that happens in the evenings, so we’re trying to kind of simulate that same idea,” Dietzler said. “This summer there will be different groups working online — and small groups with teachers working on singing, dancing, and monologues — and then creating a kind of performance that they will put on for family and friends online.”
He said there’s plenty of room for more to sign up — visit UDPAC.org. The first group will start on June 18, and sign-ups are open through the second week of July.
Fey, the highly acclaimed actress, comedian, writer, producer, and playwright who has starred on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, went through Summer Stage when she was growing up in Upper Darby.
“For like six years, she was in Summer Stage as a high school kid, and then she came back as a college student,” Dietzler said. “Even back then she was doing improv. She was funny, witty, and smart.”
In 2015, Fey returned during the 40th anniversary of Summer Stage and received the “Fill the World with Love” award from the organization.
Program veterans Nick Hunchak and Krissy Fraelich got more than theater training out of Summer Stage — they got a wedding. Hunchak, who is a third-grade teacher and current Summer Stage instructor, met Fraelich at Summer Stage when he was 13 and she was 11. They began dating a few years later, and the rest is history.
These days, they are the married parents of three children (including their oldest, Zoe, who also has participated in Summer Stage).
Fraelich is a performer. She once did a two-year national tour of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and was in the original Broadway cast of The Civil War. She currently acts in several shows around the Philadelphia area.
One of her fondest memories was having the lead role in Annie. The cast included Monica Horan-Rosenthal, who gained acclaim in the television shows Everybody Loves Raymond and Coach.
Fraelich says Summer Stage was special to her, and not just because it introduced her to her future spouse.
“It was a place I could go every summer and be with people who were like-minded, who enjoyed the same things. You could be yourself” there, she said. “It really exudes kindness and togetherness and truly ‘fills the world with love’ — that’s their motto.”
One of the Summer Stage music directors is Daniel Matarazzo, who has become a social media sensation with a COVID-19 themed parody of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” the song Julie Andrews made famous as Mary Poppins.
Matarazzo’s version, titled “Super Bad Transmittable Contagious Awful Virus,” received more than four million views on Facebook, 1.6 million on Twitter, and 766,000 on YouTube.
Matarazzo, 30, takes great pride in being part of Summer Stage. He began as a participant in 2002, the summer after fifth grade, and has been returning each summer as an instructor since 2009.
“So few townships, so few places have access to this as a program,” he said. “The staff members that come back every summer are incredibly passionate about teaching kids theater — and how to be better people through theater.”
One person who will still savor this summer, even virtually, is Alli Buchanan, a 2020 Upper Darby High graduate who will attend Wagner College to study arts administration. She has been acting with Summer Stage since she was 11.
“It is going to be different,” she said of virtual performances. “I am sure we will all make the most of it.”
She is sure because of all she has received from Summer Stage in the past.
“Being part of this program, I have learned so much about theater, but also met so many good people,” she said. “I can do the things I love with the people I love, and I get so much out of it.”