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Must-visit regional theaters not far from New York City

Whether you take a day or a weekend, some of the country's best regional theaters are well worth the trip. 

"The Color Purple" at Paper Mill Playhouse.

"The Color Purple" at Paper Mill Playhouse.   Photo Credit: Jerry Dalia

While New York City is deservedly considered the theater capital of the country, given its historic Broadway theaters in addition to countless Off-Broadway and off-Off-Broadway venues, there are many outstanding regional theaters both right outside of the city and within a few hours’ distance. Below are just a few.

1.     Paper Mill Playhouse

In the 1980s and 1990s, Paper Mill Playhouse was the place to go to see lavish revivals of classic musicals. In recent years, the theater has balanced revivals with world premieres, several of which have transferred to Broadway, including “Newsies,” “A Bronx Tale,” “Bandstand” and “Honeymoon in Vegas.” The theater just kicked off its new season with John Doyle’s Tony-winning revival of “The Color Purple,” which will be followed by two family-friendly attractions (“Holiday Inn,” “Beauty and the Beast”) and two new musicals (“My Very Own British Invasion,” “Benny & Joon”). Millburn, New Jersey, papermill.org.

2.     McCarter Theater

Located on the Princeton University campus, with a season that includes both in-house productions and touring shows, McCarter has been one of the country’s most renowned regional theaters for decades. Under the direction of playwright Emily Mann, it has shown a dedication to contemporary writers, including Christopher Durang, Athol Fugard, Nilo Cruz, Theresa Rebeck and Regina Taylor. In addition to its annual staging of “A Christmas Carol,” the new season includes Dominique Morisseau’s “Detroit ’67,” David Hare’s “Skylight” and Ken Ludwig’s “The Gods of Comedy” (about a Princeton classics professor and ancient Greek gods). Princeton, New Jersey, mccarter.org.

3.     American Repertory Theater

Following the controversial tenures of critic Robert Brustein and experimental director Robert Woodruff, Tony-winning director Diane Paulus (“Hair”) recently took over the Harvard Square theater and has made it more crowd-friendly, presenting musicals that have gone on to Broadway such as “Pippin,” “Waitress” and “Finding Neverland.” Its new season is dedicated to “stories of resistance and resilience,” including “We Live in Cairo,” a new musical about Egyptian student revolutionaries during the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak. Cambridge, Massachusetts, americanrepertorytheater.org.

4.     Arena Stage

Our nation's capital contains many excellent theater companies, but Arena Stage stands out as one of the first regional theaters in the country to attain a position of prominence and for its continued dedication to American playwrights. Artistic director Molly Smith has also earned acclaim for musical revivals with diverse casts. Three years ago, the theater presented the world premiere of “Dear Evan Hansen.” Its new season includes the Cole Porter musical comedy “Anything Goes” and “Kleptocracy” (a new play about a young Vladimir Putin). Washington, D.C., arenastage.org.

5.     Goodspeed Musicals

Operating out of an intimate playhouse completed in 1877, Goodspeed presents three main stage musicals each year, plus fresh works at a nearby venue. “Annie” and “Man of La Mancha” originated at Goodspeed. Following the long tenure of artistic director Michael P. Price, the theater is shifting toward balancing the classics with more new works. The 2018 season is concluding with “The Drowsy Chaperone,” while the 2019 season will include “The Music Man,” “Billy Elliot The Musical” and “Because of Winn Dixie” (a new work based on Kate DiCamillo’s novel about a stray dog). East Haddam, Connecticut, goodspeed.org.

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