Tucked conveniently close to Interstate 95 in Stafford County, VA, Riverside Center for the Performing Arts is a treasure trove for fans of live theater.
Riverside has drawn a loyal following both locally and among travelers for producing classics of musical theater at a high level since it opened in 1998.
But over the past several years, Riverside has upped its game with interior renovations, a renewed focus on attracting high-caliber actors, a commitment to gourmet food and more.
It’s time to take a new look at the Riverside Center. The energy and care that go into shows, meals, weddings, meetings and other events here make it an attractive option for event and meeting planners and tour operators alike.
Forget what you think you know about dinner theaters
Riverside Center was built by the late Rollin E. Wehman specifically to bring high-quality performing arts to the Fredericksburg, VA, region. That intention is reflected in the facility, which isn’t repurposed to be a dinner theater, but designed for precisely that purpose.
A proscenium stage and ample fly space allow Riverside to put on high-quality productions with all the scenery, lighting and other effects theater-goers expect.
Since fall 2015, a live orchestra has accompanied all shows.
“We want to establish ourselves as a place that produces quality productions, so we really focus on projecting the ambiance of coming into a professional theater environment, as well as a professional establishment to do elegant weddings, conference events and business meetings,” said Patrick A’Hearn, Riverside’s producing artistic director.
Guests at Riverside don’t have to line up and wait their turn at a buffet line. Instead, they select from a menu of entrees that are then served to them at their table, elevating the experience above what can be found at many other dinner theaters.
“It’s an elegant, classy experience here,” A’Hearn said.
A’Hearn, who spent his early career on Broadway in New York City and travelling with productions to theaters around the country, says Riverside stood out to him when he first came to perform at the center as an actor in 2004.
“When I came here I just thought, ‘Wow, what a venue,’” he said. “Here’s this space sitting between Washington, D.C., and Richmond, VA, literally off 95. This should be something.”
Since coming on staff full-time in 2010, he’s worked to further distinguish the theater for the quality of the experience it provides.
Curating talent on a national basis
One thing A’Hearn quickly understood when he took the reins at Riverside was the need to bring a new caliber of talent to the shows he produced.
His decades in the theater industry have left him with a network of contacts that allow him to draw from a national talent pool, and also an understanding of the work that goes into cultivating new relationships and booking the right actors at the right time.
Riverside now holds auditions both regionally and in New York City. A’Hearn plans his shows more than a year in advance, to ensure he can get on the schedules of the actors he wants before they are booked.
It also leads him to do things like performing in a production of “1776” at Ford’s Theater in 2012. A’Hearn took that job while also working at Riverside specifically to open himself up to the D.C. talent pool.
The results of all of that hard work have been new recognition for the level of quality of Riverside’s productions. A’Hearn won mention as one of the best directors of musical productions in professional theaters from DC Metro Arts in 2015 for producing “The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber.”
When that show was reprised in spring and summer 2016, a reviewer for The Free Lance-Star newspaper remarked that her highly cultured high school daughter looked at her and said of the actors, “Mom, they’re like real Broadway quality, some of them are even better than the Broadway performances I’ve seen!”
A’Hearn said audience sizes have grown, group sales have doubled and theatergoers are generally commenting on how impressed they are with the caliber of talent they’re seeing at each show.
“They’re getting a real quality show,” A’Hearn said.
In addition to finding the right talent, A’Hearn has also focused on choosing the right shows to suit his audience, even if that means doing things the theater hasn’t traditionally done.
In response to surveys of the community, A’Hearn has expanded the repertoire at Riverside to include more than musicals. The 2016 lineup includes “Driving Miss Daisy,” which stars Karen Grassle, known for her role as Caroline Ingalls on NBC’s series “Little House on the Prairie.”
“You have to have a variety,” A’Hearn said. “It’s great to do the classics, but people also want to see something that’s more current.”
The food doesn’t just play a supporting role
It’s often said that you don’t go to a dinner theater for the food, but lately, Riverside Center has been proving that there’s an exception to every rule.
General Manager Dino Yannitsadis comes from a family that knows the restaurant business. He brought in a new chef and revamped the kitchen. The changes have managed to bring costs down while greatly raising the quality of what comes out of the kitchen.
“The quality of the dinners has skyrocketed,” a reviewer for the Culpeper Star-Exponent wrote in December 2014. “My dinner last Friday night could compare to any of the best I have had in the region.”
Recent renovations make it shine
The Riverside Center recently completed a $250,000 renovation that puts a whole new look on both the dinner theater and the conference space. Clean, modern neutrals on the walls allow sparkling new chandeliers and gleaming marble tiled floors to project elegance.
The updates have drawn renewed interest in the facility’s three function rooms, which offer a combined total of nearly 15,000 square feet of event space, with staff to provide one-on-one assistance in planning meetings, weddings and other events and gatherings at the center.
“It’s great to have the theater and an events center housed together,” A’Hearn said.
Adding to the appeal is the ease of access.
The Riverside Center is situated within sight of Interstate 95, at exit 133 in Stafford County. Its location puts it almost exactly in the middle of many popular north-south journeys on this heavily trafficked thoroughfare.
It takes just minutes to access the center, whose parking lot accommodates buses, from the interstate. Three hotels are within a half-mile of the facility, which is 3 miles from Downtown Fredericksburg.
Learn how the Riverside Center can enhance your next event or tour in Fredericksburg. Contact the Fredericksburg Regional Tourism Partnership at 800-260-3646 to get started creating an event that is tailored to your group's specific needs.