It’s the most wonderful time of year, again, at Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse for Bobby Becher and Mark McGinn.
Not just because they’re helping bring Circa’s latest holiday show, “A Christmas Story: The Musical,” but also since the Quad Cities theater veterans just love performing, period.
“It is very gratifying; it is really neat to watch the process come together,” McGinn – a Music Guild veteran – said Thursday at the Rock Island theater. His role (of narrator Jean Shepherd, the original story author) is mainly speaking (he says he’s only got five sung notes). “I love to sing, but it’s a fun show to be in.”
“This specific show and group of people feels to me like exactly what regional theater is meant to be,” Becher (who plays Ralphie’s father) said. “There is a lot of homegrown talent involved in this process — from the director to main characters, to all of the children obviously. That is something I think the Quad Cities can be very proud of.”
“Another thing they can be equally proud of is, being able to bring in people from New York, Chicago and places like that, to join us Quad Citizens, in a production like that,” he added. “That is, in a time where theater at a macro level — things are closing faster than people could have ever expected.”
“Having a professional regional theater in this area is so valuable, and is something that we truly value the people who value it,” Becher said. “We hope we can continue to choose to appreciate this establishment and not take it for granted. We hope the audiences will do the same thing.”
That goes for the bountiful theater scene in the QC, he noted, including many other local theaters that also have new shows this month — Music Guild and Playcrafters in Moline; Richmond Hill in Geneseo, and both Augustana College and St. Ambrose University (Becher music directed the new Ambrose musical, “title of show,” which runs this weekend and next).
“There’s so much to choose from and so many places to go, it’s all quality and I think getting to experience that first-hand, it is unique and special, and I hope everyone can put that in perspective and we can all do our part to try and keep that alive as long as we can,” he said.
Running through Dec. 30, “A Christmas Story” opens Circa’s 2023-24 season, and inspired The New York Times to rave, “You’d have to have a Grinch-sized heart not to feel a smile spreading across your face.”
Based on the 1983 film classic and set in the fictional town of Hohman, Indiana, in the 1940s, “A Christmas Story” follows nine-year-old Ralphie Parker and his quest for the Holy Grail of Christmas gifts: an Official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot Range Model air rifle. Rebuffed at every turn with a similar echoing response, Ralphie plots numerous schemes to achieve his desperate desire for the coveted BB gun.
Meanwhile, all of the iconic scenes that audiences fondly recall from the movie are found in its musical adaptation: Ralphie’s friend Flick getting his tongue stuck to the flagpole, his brother Randy getting dressed in his suffocating snowsuit, the bullies Farkus and Dill; the leg-lamp Major Award, Ralphie’s bunny suit and many more.
Pasek and Paul score
After several regional productions, out-of-town tryouts and national tours, this version of the musical originally opened on Broadway in 2012, and was first done at Circa ’21 for the 2013 holiday season.
The show has a score by Academy Award and Tony winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, running the gamut from gentle ballads to show-stopping ensemble numbers and its songs include “Before the Old Man Comes Home,” “When You’re a Wimp,” and the inevitable “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out.”
Pasek and Paul had their first Broadway smash with the 2015 musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” which won six 2016 Tonys including Best Musical and Best Score and later that year, they won Best Original Song Oscar for “City of Stars” from the movie-musical “La La Land” (2016), for which they wrote lyrics.
Becher said he’d never seen the “Christmas Story” film before being cast.
“I think this is a great adaptation and people who are very attached to the movie will appreciate the reverence I think this adaptation brings,” he said.
“It is very faithful to the story and the emotions of the movie,” McGinn said. “It adds fun singing and dancing, and it’s very touching.”
“People who are big fans of the movie will have that reason to come, and people who are big fans of musical theater will have that reason to come,” Becher said of Pasek and Paul. “This is definitely something that was close to, if not the exact launching point of those two.”
Becher is very impressed by the kids (about 15 total, including those double cast) in the show, who range in age from 9 to 17. Ben Pisel plays Ralphie for most performances, and Jack Carslake will play him Wednesday nights. Almost all the kids get at least one performance a week off, he said.
“The way these kids have been juggling this has been very impressive, and I think is going to do them a lot of good going forward,” Becher said.
Partners in life and theater
“A Christmas Story” is directed and choreographed by venue veteran (and Bobby’s wife) Ashley Becher, who previously helmed productions of “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas,” “Seussical” and “Just Desserts,” with music direction by area favorite Ron May.
Bobby Becher’s past Circa credits include “The Outsider,” “Escape to Margaritaville,” “Mamma Mia,” “We Will Rock You,” “White Christmas,” “Disaster!,” “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” “Just Desserts,” “The Play That Goes Wrong,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Seussical,” “Saturday Night Fever,” and “Holiday Inn.”
In addition to performing, Bobby has worked as music director for the Circa ’21 Bootleggers, and “The Rocky Horror Show.”
Bobby and Ashley are also the creators and coordinators of Circa’s educational program, Rising Stars, and are co-owners of the Theatre for Young Audiences company, WhatFun! Theatre.
Bobby also loves collaborating with Ashley, who’s choreographed many Circa shows, including last season’s “White Christmas,” in which he co-starred.
“Ashley has been a very instrumental part of this during COVID and post-COVID transition at Circa,” Bobby said. “Almost everything she’s done here, I have been a part of in some way. We met collaborating on children’s theater in South Korea, so we have always had a relationship that’s been founded in creative collaboration.”
“Both of us take our situation and the importance of doing things right very seriously,” he said, noting Ashley gives him honest, objective feedback. “We have been gifted from this place. They are very loyal to their people and we have been given a lot, and we hope to give a lot back in return.”
“I can’t remember the last time I went through a holiday season without doing a show somewhere,” Becher said. “It’s one of the most popular times for people to see shows.”
“That gives actors a lot of opportunities and they’re very often fun, heartwarming and nostalgic and give you all of the intangible reasons to do theater, that you’re often looking for,” he said.
A 50-year theater career
McGinn (narrator Jean Shepherd) is returning to return to the Circa ’21 stage for just his second musical here, after playing Cap in “Winter Wonderland” (2021).
Although retired after a 40-year career in teaching computer science, McGinn has over 50 years of QC theater involvement including on-stage performing, sound designer, bass guitar and woodwinds in the pit, music directing, and stage crew.
Highlights from over 50 productions include: Harry Bright in “Mamma Mia,” Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables,” Will Rogers in “Will Rogers Follies,” Man in Chair in “Drowsy Chaperone,” and Booth in “Assassins.”
McGinn didn’t do Circa before because of his full-time job, the last 20 years teaching at St. Ambrose (before retiring seven years ago). Circa has about two weeks of rehearsals each show, for 10- to 12-hour days each.
McGinn has noticed the difference in time commitment compared to community theater, where rehearsals are typically 2-3 hours a night. “It’s a different level of connection, and closeness,” he said. “You have to trust the other people.”
McGinn (who’s close to turning 71) said he’ll have to see whether more Circa productions are in his future. “I can’t say yes, I can’t say no. At this point, a lot of it depends on the show and the role,” he said.
Circa also has a larger backstage crew for the new show than normal, to help with the massive amount of set changes and costume changes, Becher said. “We haven’t needed that in the past, but when we needed it, they provided for us,” he said. “That is something that shouldn’t go unnoticed.”
Former Moliner Cara Chumbley returns to Circa to play the mother in the Parker family.
“A Christmas Story” will be presented at Circa ’21 through Dec. 30, with performances on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 5:30 p.m., and Wednesday matinées at 1:15 p.m. Pre-show entertainment featuring the theater waitstaff The Bootleggers will also precede all performances.
Ticket prices are $63 for the evening dinner-and-show productions and $56 for the matinee or evening performances on Wednesdays. Reservations are available through the Circa ’21 ticket office at 1828 3rd Ave, Rock Island, by calling 309-786-7733 ext. 2.