AT first glance, Cedar City, Utah, looks like little more than home to a gaggle of fast-food outlets and the ubiquitous Wal-Mart. The town of about 17,000 people, located four hours from Salt Lake City and three hours from Las Vegas, is only accessible by ''puddle jumper,'' and the airport is smaller than most convenience stores.
But every night and most afternoons during the summer, huge audiences come here to see Shakespeare productions and other classic plays and musicals at the Utah Shakespearean Festival.
Cedar City's accessibility to spectacular scenery has helped make it a major tourist destination and a boon to the festival. Within a day's drive are seven national parks (the nearest being Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park). The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is only a three-hour drive, and the Cedar Breaks National Monument, a magnificent natural-rock amphitheater, is minutes away. It makes for a perfect vacation, satisfying culture vultures and nature lovers alike. And there's a wide variety of places to stay within walking distance of festival theaters.
The festival, located on the beautiful campus of Southern Utah University, is now in its 34th year, having been founded by Fred C. Adams in 1962. It currently boasts two theaters: the Adams Shakespearean Theatre, built in 1977, an outdoor Tudor-style playhouse that resembles the probable design of Shakespeare's original Globe Theatre, seating 777; and the indoor Randall L. Jones Theatre, built in 1989, seating 763.
The festival's current season, which concludes Sept. 2, includes six productions: Shakespeare's ''Much Ado About Nothing,'' ''Othello,'' ''The Tempest,'' and ''Henry VIII''; Kaufman and Hart's Pulitzer Prize-winning ''You Can't Take It With You''; and the musical ''A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.''
Having packed in four productions during a recent weekend, I can attest to the high quality and professionalism of the festival's offerings. (Regretfully, scheduling problems forced me to miss their ''Henry VIII,'' a work so rarely performed that this production attracted Shakespeare lovers from all over the country.)
The casts, which include a mixture of professional actors and students from the university, displayed a uniformly skillful grasp of Shakespearean language, as well as the necessary comic flair for the two non-Shakespearean works.
The highlight of the season, by popular consensus, is ''You Can't Take It With You,'' a play that can seem creaky and dated if not done well. It was performed with a brio and liveliness that was never less than delightful. To my estimation, it even surpassed the Broadway revival of several years back, which starred Jason Robards.
The production of ''Forum'' stood out because it starred (in the central role of Pseudolus, the manipulative slave) the festival's own founder, Fred C. Adams, who delighted the crowd as much as he seemed to be enjoying himself.
Although Adams has acted in many Utah university productions, this is the first time he appears on his own festival's stage.
It's also notable that Harold Gould, a film and television veteran (you'll probably know him best as the father of ''Rhoda'') is playing the lead role of Prospero in ''The Tempest.''
Gould has made the Utah Shakespeare Festival a second home; he previously played the title role in ''King Lear'' here, and he likes Cedar City so much he's building a house nearby.
The festival offers not only a string of fine performances but also a full cultural experience. Before evening plays, festival- goers can enjoy a complimentary ''Greenshow'' on the lawn next to the Adams Shakespearean Theatre. The show conveys the spirit of 16th-century England through music, dance, and skits; the presentation varies according to which play is being performed. Costumed performers, including mimes and jugglers, roam the grounds, and ''fair maidens'' sell refreshments.
Several nights a week, ''The Royal Feaste'' is offered, a seven-course medieval-style dinner served in the ''home of Earl Roderic and Lady Katherine of Cederwood.'' The dinner, hosted by festival performers and musicians, is a show in itself. Backstage tours, seminars about the shows, and readings of new plays in progress are also offered.
The festival is planning a major expansion, planned for the end of the decade, which will feature new theaters and buildings built around a central plaza that will have a Renaissance theme.
r Ticket prices range from $17 to $27. The 1996 Shakespearean Festival, June 20 through Sept. 7, will include six shows: Shakespeare's ''Henry VI, Part I,'' ''Macbeth,'' ''The Comedy of Errors,'' and ''The Winter's Tale''; Gilbert and Sullivan's ''The Mikado''; and an adaptation of Alexandre Dumas's ''The Three Musketeers.'' For more information, call (801) 586-7878.