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Pines Dinner Theatre: Original plays, flexible facility have new roles for audiences

Editor’s Note: This is Part One in a continuing series, “West End Theatre District: New Beginnings,” about how some of the owners and officials of theaters, restaurants and businesses in Allentown’s West End Theatre District are coping with coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic protocols.

Of the more than 15 live theater venues and acting companies in the Lehigh Valley, from The Pennsylvania Playhouse to Civic Theatre of Allentown, only a few so far have managed to open up and perform live indoors during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The Pines Dinner Theatre, at the Allentown Fairgrounds on the eastern edge of the West End Theatre District, has been producing shows before live audiences for the past three months, benefiting from creative management and a set of circumstances not shared by other theater groups.

As an example, the Pines has been able to seat up to 25 percent of its audience capacity indoors since June because it serves plated food like a restaurant. It has no bar. No alcohol is served.

Unlike most stationary theater seating, Pines has the flexibility to move and eliminate tables to adhere to the six-foot social distancing guidelines.

At the beginning of the shutdown, Pines’ owner and artistic director Oliver Blatt says, “We did actually do virtual performances for a month, but it became painfully obvious that as restrictions were being lifted, guests didn’t want to watch a show on television anymore. They wanted to get out.”

During the summer months, when live entertainment everywhere was canceled and indoor dining was not permitted, Blatt took a chance on creating “Pines on the Patio” just outside the main theater building, with food available from an ala carte menu.

In one week, Blatt wrote and directed “He Said, She Said,” a duo-act musical created for the outdoor stage. It ran June 20 through Aug. 22.

Pines music director Stacy Bechtel accompanied the singers-actors on piano on the open-air patio stage, which she says was great fun. “The only true challenge performing on the patio was Mother Nature. The wind had a tendency of turning my pages every time a large gust of wind would blow through,” Bechtel remembers.

Looking back, Blatt says the Pines was lucky to have had the patio area outside its back door. “If we were any place else, this wouldn’t have happened.”

On July 8, while “He Said, She Said” played on the patio, Blatt produced “Nunsensations,” the Pines’ first live show of the season indoors.

Originally scheduled to open in March just after Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s pandemic shutdown executive order, casting director and actress Stacey Yoder recalls that “everyone was heartbroken” that they would have to postpone their opening night.

It’s a lot about the music at the Pines, where it is not unusual to be entertained by four or five musicians, mixed by music director Bechtel. The scores are often written by Blatt.

Yoder credits the crew, not just actors, for being “ready and willing to come together and do whatever tasks needed to happen in order to remain in business.”

Despite being able to perform and serve food indoors, Yoder said that the seating limitations have an impact on actors and audiences alike. Wolf set a limit of 25 or fewer for indoor gatherings and 250 or fewer at outdoor gatherings.

“We have such an intimate space that with our tables all six feet apart and no parties being seated together at the same table, it still makes for a rather empty event,” says Yoder.

“Playing a show in front of a fraction of the amount of folks you are used to is hard.

“With live theater, you rely on feedback from your crowd. When the space ‘feels’ empty, the audience tends to be more reserved in its responses.”

As of Sept. 21, under new pandemic guidelines, the Pines is now able to seat up to 50 percent of its 100-seat capacity. “Finally, we will be able to see bigger crowds,” Yoder says.

The Pines is staging its second indoor production, “Mid-Life, the Crisis Musical,” through Oct. 25. With a cast of six and an innovative on-stage turntable that facilitates entrances, exits and scene changes, the dinner theater is open for business and providing much needed entertainment for Lehigh Valley theater-goers.

“Mid-Life, the Crisis Musical,” Thursdays and Saturdays through Oct. 25. Tickets: Pines Dinner Theatre box office, 448 N. 17th St., Allentown; pinesdinnertheatre.com; 610-433-2333

PRESS PHOTO BY CAROLE GORNEY From left: The Pines Dinner Theatre Music Director Stacy Bechtel and Pines owner-producer-director-playwright Oliver Blatt.