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Full season returns to Bucks County Playhouse

Almost immediately after opening, the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope became known as one of the nation's top summer theaters.

Almost immediately after opening, the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope became known as one of the nation's top summer theaters.

More than 1,000 people vied for about 300 tickets on the night of its first show, according to newspaper accounts, and along Main Street, "children peered from trees as Broadway and Hollywood celebrities attended the premiere performance."

The theater, in a converted mill along the Delaware River, became a proving ground for young actors such as Grace Kelly and Angela Lansbury. Staging performances between May and September, it became known for the cavalcade of stars it lured away from the bright city lights: Liza Minnelli, Robert Redford, and Walter Matthau all performed there.

Success continued into the 1960s, but when the heyday ended, summer shows began losing their sizzle, said Jed Bernstein, the theater's current producing director, and the performances were eliminated after 2010, when the playhouse went broke and closed for 18 months.

Now Bernstein, who was brought in after a group of local investors reopened the theater with $3 million worth of renovations in July, hopes the golden era of summer shows will return to the New Hope institution.

The venue has been used to host a variety of private events since it reopened, and three shows were staged there last summer.

But a full slate of summer shows kicked off Thursday with the musical Mame.

Five more shows are to follow, each running for about three weeks, and Bernstein hopes the fully revitalized summer schedule - often referred to as the "straw-hat circuit" - can return the theater to its former glory.

"It's almost like the last hurdle to cross to say, 'We're back,' " he said.

Included among the six shows on tap for this season is the world premiere of Mothers and Sons, from Tony Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally. That premiere alone, Bernstein says, "is proof positive that we're back in the conversation" of great summer theater.

But there will also be musicals, such as Really Rosie, with a cast of child actors primarily from the Philadelphia region, and a play directed by Tony Award-winning actor Boyd Gaines, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife.

The lineup excites Bernstein, a veteran Broadway producer who was named president of New York City's Lincoln Center earlier this month, but it has also made him slightly nervous. After producing three shows there last year, increasing that total to six is daunting, he said.

"It's as if you've suddenly doubled the length of the baseball season," he said.

There are also challenges unique to New Hope, he added, such as the nightly fireworks show that booms over the river at 9:40 that and will echo through the theater if intermissions are not planned accordingly.

"We're figuring that out," he said with a grin.

But Bernstein's hope is that production goes smoothly, helping to revive the lifeblood of the theater that, according to a 1958 Inquirer account, was once "the most durable straw-hat enterprise in the local area," causing "stars and more stars" to whisk into and out of New Hope.

"The notion that we could get there again is pretty exciting," Bernstein said.