Ivins •The Tuacahn Amphitheatre that draws more than 285,000 patrons each year is a far cry from the idea behind the arts center when it opened in 1995.

With Hyrum Smith financing the project and Douglas Stewart writing a play, the outdoor center at the base of a spectacular redrock formation was envisioned as a place to tell the history of southern Utah.

But after seeing the original “Utah!” show once, there was little to keep drawing patrons back. So Tuacahn slowly evolved into a musical theater destination that features amazing special effects only possible with an outdoor stage.

(Courtesy Photo) Whitney Winfield as Princess Fiona, Andre Jordan as Donkey and Steve Judkins as Shrek in the Tuacahn production of "Shrek the Musical" now playing at the southern Utah amphitheater.

For its latest season running through October, the lineup reflects the philosophy of offering mainly family-oriented fare: “Shrek the Musical” for the youngsters, Disney’s “Newsies” for the whole family and “Mamma Mia!” for a slightly older crowd.

Drama in the desert

“Shrek the Musical”
• Through Oct. 20;

Disney’s “Newsies” • Through Oct. 18

”Mamma Mia!” • Through Oct. 21

Tickets • $29-$89; tuacahn.org

The quality of the productions began to draw talented professional actors from all over the country to a place in southwestern Utah few knew even existed.

Cedar City to the north had its highly successful Utah Shakespeare Festival. Professional and community theaters in Salt Lake and Las Vegas were also popular. Tuacahn had to find a niche.

On the surface, that wouldn’t be easy.

This is an environment where the temperature onstage can regularly hit more than 100 at curtain call. Occasional monsoons can delay or even postpone a performance. At a recent performance of “Mamma Mia!,” a trio of wild ringtail cats wandered behind the stage during a dramatic moment.

To overcome these challenges, artistic director Scott Anderson and his bevy of costume and set designers took advantage of the southern Utah landscape and the ability to do things outdoors.

Tuacahn would become a place where every play finished with fireworks, where seeing live animals such as camels stroll across the stage isn’t unusual and where Mary Poppins uses a zip line to fly in from the base of the canyon.

This is a stage that can take a flood or create a waterfall of images. It can accommodate vintage cars, flying witches and carpets, a three-story-high New York City skyline or, as is the case in “Shrek” this year, a 35-foot-long dragon that takes six puppeteers to operate — and breathes fire.

(Courtesy Photo) Hannah Record as Spot Conlon, Ryan Farnsworth as Jack Kelly, Daniel Scott Walton as Davey and Matthew Tyler as Joseph Pulitzer in the Tuacahn production of "Newsies" now playing at the southern Utah amphitheater.

Anderson has also developed a great relationship with Disney that helps him land regional premieres for some of the company’s best new stage musicals.

“I like the professionalism,” said Gary Kruitbosch of St. George during a recent showing of “Mamma Mia!” “It’s just how good they are. And the outdoor theater is so nice. The thing I like about the venue is you might see a horse and carriage or a car right on the stage. I even watched professional bull riding here.”

There’s more than Broadway musicals on the lineup. Fall events include Odyssey Dance Theater’s “Thriller.” The Piano Guys have already sold out their performances. Comedian Bill Engvall and a Beatles cover band called The Fab Four are coming. In December, Tuacahn will stage a new show, “Fairy Tale Christmas,” in its indoor theater.

Here are some other new things this year, according to marketing director Stephanie Finck.

• Tuacahn has a new arts building, with a basement that serves as a rehearsal space and classrooms for the school.

• Patrons will notice a new cafe that is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day but Sunday and an expanded gift shop.

• Expand “Showcare” babysitting service where, for $17, youngsters can do theater-themed crafts and enjoy treats while their parents and older siblings see a play.

• All of the nearly 2,000 seats in the outdoor amphitheater were also replaced and now include drink holders.

• Some grassy areas on either side of the stage can be used for overflow crowds, as productions at Tuacahn often sell out.