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Outdoor dramas keep stories alive

Courtesy The Lost Colony

‘Medora Musical’
[ Medora, North Dakota ]
In the early 19th century, Theodore Roosevelt fell in love with the natural beauty and rocky terrain of North Dakota’s badlands. Today, the town of Medora honors Roosevelt’s memory with the “Medora Musical.”

“They wanted to start a family show with a lot of singing, dancing and a patriotic finale,” said amphitheater manager Kinley Slauter. “That was the format back in 1965 when they started the show, and those ingredients are all still here.”

Now, 47 years later, the show still features songs, dances, horses and a Western theme. It’s not a plot-based drama but a musical comedy revue. A cast of 12 singers and dancers perform comedy, Western songs, gospel classics and patriotic themes. The program changes each year, but it always includes a tribute to Roosevelt.

“There’s at least one section dedicated to Roosevelt, either things that he did as president or that he did when he was in this area,” Slauter said. “Also, there’s a section talking about the history of Medora and how people came to be here.”

The show takes place in an 850-seat theater on the side of a butte outside Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

‘The Stephen Foster Story’
[ Bardstown, Kentucky ]
Paul Green is also responsible for another of the country’s long running outdoor dramas: “The Stephen Foster Story.” Green wrote the play in 1957 at the request of the city of Bardstown and the state of Kentucky to honor the life and songwriting legacy of Stephen Foster.

“Stephen Foster’s music has become a global phenomenon,” said Johnny Warren, the musical’s managing artistic director. “You’d be hard-pressed to go anywhere in the world and not find someone who recognizes ‘Oh, Susannah’ or ‘Camptown Races.’”

The play takes place at My Old Kentucky Home State Park, a place named for one of Foster’s most famous compositions. It features elements of more than 50 of Foster’s songs, including 20 performed in their entirety.

The cast of 45 professional performers don mid-19th-century costumes to depict 1849 to 1850, pivotal years in Foster’s life.

“In that period, he learns that he can make money selling his songs,” Warren said. “He struggles to convince his family that it’s a worthy use of his time, and he also falls in love with his childhood sweetheart. It’s a story about the timeless struggle of following your mind or following your heart.”

Many groups combine their visit to the musical with a tour of the Federal Hill Mansion, the property that inspired the song “My Old Kentucky Home.”

‘Shepherd of the Hills’
[ Branson, Missouri ]
The 1907 book “Shepherd of the Hills” was one of the first things to draw national attention to the Ozark Mountains surrounding what is now Branson, Missouri. By 1912, locals were re-enacting scenes from the book on the site of the homestead where its events took place.
Today, that homestead is the site of a large outdoor drama named for the book.

“It’s historical fiction,” said group sales director Traci Stillwell. “Some of the characters were created, but the events all happened.

“It’s the story of the Matthews family that lived here and a pastor called ‘the Shepherd’ who came and stayed with them. It’s about adversity, forgiveness and love.”

The language of the book was written in original “Ozarkian” dialect, and the play is performed with similar inflection to give visitors a feel for early-19th-century life in the area. Some 90 actors take part in the show, along with 40 horses and a flock of sheep.

In addition to seeing the show, groups can tour the homestead and see some items that belonged to the Matthews family.

“We offer a tour of the original cabin,” Stillwell said. “We take them all across the property and point out certain things that they’ll see in the show that night.”

Groups can choose from a number of other activities at the site as well, among them a visit to Inspiration Tower, an innovative zip-line experience and a concert by the Sons of the Pioneers.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.