Patrick A’ Hearn may have ambled from the streets of Broadway, but he brought Broadway quality with him to Fredericksburg, Virginia. Since 2011, he’s been at the helm of the Riverside Center for the Performing Arts, a 36,000 square foot theater and conference facility situated between Washington, DC and Richmond, Virginia along Interstate-95.
The Cortland, New York native found success as an original cast member of Broadway’s Les Misérables and spent several years with the show. In addition to climbing barricades and being a red-tempered revolutionary, A’Hearn’s career also included performing with some of the biggest names in theater–Chita Rivera, Ben Vereen, Rudolf Nureyrev, Michael Crawford, and Andy Gibb-to name a few.
In 2006, A’Hearn was hired as an Actors’ Equity Guest Artist to play Harold Hill in Riverside’s production of The Music Man. Three years later, he was brought on to direct their production of Evita. It was a hit. That’s when the late Ron Wehman, Riverside’s founder, expressed interest in bringing him on as Artistic Director. Until that point, they didn’t have one. “I wasn’t ready to give up performing. I didn’t think I could take on the position of running a theater and being a performer at the same time,” A’Hearn said.
After speaking with Wehman and the board of directors, they brokered a deal and in 2010, A’Hearn stepped cautiously into the position. “I didn’t immediately sell my apartment in New York,” he admitted. “If it didn’t work out, at least I could go home.” He confessed that the first few years of his tenure were a challenge. Still, he endured and in 2017, he sold his apartment on the Upper West Side. He now owns stock in the company and it doesn’t look like he’ll be fleeing Fredericksburg anytime soon.
Under his leadership, the theater has received several accolades from the industry and in 2019, it was recognized by BroadwayWorld.com as “Theater of the Year” from their annual regional awards. He has also exponentially increased audience size.
Like the rest of the country, Riverside was forced to confront the race reckoning of 2020. Yet A’Hearn expressed pride in the fact that diversity has always been a cornerstone there. “Sure, theater is all about entertainment, but I’ve always tried to find opportunities to educate an audience,” he said. “As we move forward, we’re doing even more inclusive productions.”
In July, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner will grace the theater’s mainstage. Based on the 1967 Academy Award winning movie about a mixed-race couple, the new stage adaption will be directed by Anita Gonzelez, Ph.D., professor at Georgetown University and reputable theater director. It will star Joyce DeWitt of the popular sitcom Three’s Company.
A’ Hearn also points to their sister organization, the Riverside Foundation for the Performing Arts. “They help create opportunities within the community across various economic levels, so that helps us with diversity as well,” he said.
Community outreach is another important component for Riverside theater. Each year, they grant awards for excellence to local high school musicals. They also facilitate summer theater camps and produce children’s theater, both of which draw “robust participation from schools and organizations.”
A’Hearn and his team are even considering a performing arts school at the facility. “There is no strong college prep for prospective musical theater performers,” he noted. “We have our own scene shop here and the entire basement of this facility houses a huge costume collection. I think that these resources would set us up for great success.” He’d also like to host national tours and well-known concert artists.
Last week, A’Hearn opened a new, reimagined version of the Lerner and Loewe stalwart Camelot, set against the backdrop of the Kennedy years. He has also cast black actor Travis Keith Battle in the role of Lancelot. That will run through May 8th. Later offerings this season include Nunsense, and Ghost: The Musical.
2023 marks the 25th anniversary of the arts facility and A’Hearn is already planning for the event with a production of The Wiz (directed by Broadway’s Gerry McIntyre) and a reivnention of Annie Get Your Gun.
“We’re constantly striving to change the dynamic and up the game,” A’Hearn said. “I’m always going to strive for a challenge.” As for performing, he’s no longer eager to bask in the spotlight. “I’ve had so many wonderful opportunities to do that,” he said. “I’m really clear on what I want to do and I get my creative juices flowing from this. I love what I do!”
*Writers note: While it’s not typical to editorialize in a feature piece, I was introduced to Riverside in 2018. When my parents and I went to see their holiday show, Rockabilly Christmas in 2018. The level of vocal talent and top-notch musicians far exceeded my expectations. So much in fact that I went back to see their production of Bright Star, a show I had seen multiple times on Broadway, last fall. Again, it was thoughtfully and beautifully executed. A’Hearn strikes me as a consciousness director who is willing to mine the best qualities from his performances and his performers.
With spring and summer upon us, a weekend trip to Fredericksburg, VA (approximately 5 hours by bus or train) would be well worth the time. In addition to quality theater, it is quite close to Shenandoah National Park .
For tickets and more information about Riverside Center for the Performing Arts, visit https://www.riversidedt.com/