1970s jukebox musicals at Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse have become a specialty for director/choreographer Amy McCleary.
After the popular stage musical “Saturday Night Fever” (based on the disco-themed film from ’77) was shelved shortly before opening in March 2020, McCleary saw it through at Circa in Rock Island last summer. She’s back with a far less serious and less dance heavy musical, “Disaster!”, which opens in previews Wednesday night and will run through Sept. 10.
McCleary said Tuesday she’s become a ’70s specialist in part because she was born in 1979, and loves the hits of that decade.
“That’s what my parents listened to, so all the songs in ‘Disaster!’ I know and love,” she said. “What’s so great about ‘Disaster’ is that it runs the gamut of ’70s music. You go from disco to Carly Simon to Captain & Tennille.”
There are so many songs, because the show includes several short snippets.
“It’s all very campy, and paying homage to the disaster films of the ’70s,” McCleary said. “It’s like a joke. It’s just very silly. To me, it reminds me of albums I listened to as a kid, and I would make up stories in my own head. It’s just very innocent in that regard, that they took these things and mashed them together.”
The 2016 Tony nominee blends favorite movie cliches of the 1970s with over 30 of the era’s most iconic songs. The supremely silly show was staged this past spring at Quad City Music Guild in Moline.
As this twist on disaster spectacles such as “The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Towering Inferno” opens, it’s 1979, and New York’s hottest A-listers are lining up for the opening of a floating casino and disco. Also attending is a faded disco star, a sexy nightclub singer with her 11-year-old twins, a disaster expert, a feminist reporter, an older couple with a secret, a pair of young guys on the lookout for ladies, an untrustworthy businessman and a nun with a gambling addiction.
What begins as a night of boogie fever quickly changes to panic as the ship succumbs to multiple disasters such as earthquakes, tidal waves and infernos. As “Disaster”‘s night turns into day, everyone struggles to survive and perhaps repair the loves that they’ve lost – or at least escape the killer rats – in this cheeky stage entertainment boasting such well-known era hits as ‘“Knock on Wood,” “Hooked on a Feeling,” “Sky High,” “I Am Woman” and “Hot Stuff.”
McCleary has been resident director and choreographer for Prather Productions for the past 15 years. Favorite projects include choreographing the international tour of “Wizard of Oz,” directing/choreographing the 2015 national tour of “Memphis” and helming a special engagement production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
While the “Disaster!” casino is called The Barracuda, the score doesn’t include Heart’s 1977 hit of the same name. It also doesn’t include the hit “The Morning After” from 1972’s disaster flick “The Poseidon Adventure.”
“We all get to laugh every single day in rehearsal,” McCleary said. “It’s so over the top. You just have to go for broke. You can’t hold back in this type of material. It’s so fun that you can go fully to the extent of all your abilities. It’s never that you’re going over the line — there’s no line.”
Like ‘SNL’ with great tunes
“Disaster!” is like “a Saturday Night Live sketch with great music,” she said.
McCleary enjoys being both director and choreographer for shows, since it’s more seamless.
“I’ve always been a choreographer who, I really optimize the stories in the choreography,” she said. “I love creating really pretty stage pictures. They go hand in hand.”
McCleary’s favorite dance number is an improbable tap dance to “A Fifth of Beethoven,” a disco pop hit also featured in “Saturday Night Fever” (there are no Bee Gees songs in “Disaster!”).
“It’s choreographed in a completely different way,” she said of the non-disco version here. In “Poseidon Adventure,” Shelley Winters’ character swims to rescue someone, and in “Disaster!” she is a champion tap dancer, and she tap dances the Morse code so they can open a door, McCleary said. “Why wouldn’t she?” she joked. “It’s just for fun.”
“What’s so great about it is, the cast is so diverse in terms of age,” she said of the 14-member group, the youngest of whom is 13. If you think about it on a deeper level, “it’s about a group of people coming together and all their experiences contribute to getting out of that situation.
“To me, this is the perfect time for that, because we’re so divided now,” McCleary said. “Hey Boomers, Generation Z, you can learn from each other. Let’s all work together and get out of this conundrum.”
In the show, every person contributes to getting out of the disaster alive, and it’s a true ensemble show, where everyone shines, the director said.
“That’s what I love about the show — they all work together in the end, despite their differences,” McCleary said. One of the performers is a lounge act on the fictional casino, and that’s how they incorporate a lot of the songs.
She said the 101-year-old dinner theater (which originated as a movie house and has been Circa since 1977) is absolutely magical.
“Every time I step into it and see this gorgeous proscenium and the history, and I love the dressing rooms,” McCleary said. “You just feel the spirit of theater here and all the performers who have performed here.”
“I think it’s rare that theaters have this much history behind them,” she said. “It’s a really beautiful space to do a show.”
Friends reunite for show
Moore, 27, is in her third version of “Disaster!” — the previous ones were at Great Plains Theater in Kansas (July 2019) and Four Corners Musical Theater in New Mexico (February 2020), the last show she did before COVID shutdowns. The first two she played Sister Mary, which Bigelow plays now.
This time, Moore is Marianne — a very ’70s feminist and determined journalist, who abandoned love for her career. “It’s a big plot point in the show that bites her in the butt a little bit,” she said Tuesday. “She’s there because she’s heard rumors and speculation that maybe everything is not up to safety standards and this is the first big, meaty story she’s taken on and she’s very excited about it.”
She gets to sing the feminist anthem “I Am Woman,” as well as a few ’70s love ballads.
“To me, it’s kind of like a scavenger hunt of songs that you might recognize,” Moore said. She worked this past February for McCleary at the Broadway Palm in Florida, in “Escape to Margaritaville.”
Bigelow, 25, was the lead in Circa’s first post-COVID musical, a Church Basement Ladies show that opened in March 2021. “It was really calming to be back,” she said. “There was no drama. As soon as I walked in here, it felt like my second home. I heard about this theater from Michaela — we go way back.”
The women were in two non-Circa shows together: at Priscilla Beach in Plymouth, Mass., in 2019, “(title of show),” where they played the only women in the four-person show, and in “Young Frankenstein.”
“We always play opposite,” Bigelow said. “She’s always the hot ingenue one, and I’m the weird, funny one. We’re just cast as ourselves; I’m not even acting.”
“Disaster!” features 14 professional performers, comprised entirely of Circa veterans.
The show’s crew of misbegotten travelers includes actors from recent productions of “Saturday Night Fever” (Ashley Becher, Natalie Carrera and Brad Hauskins); “Just Desserts” (Bobby Becher and Shelley Walljasper); “The Church Basement Ladies in You Smell Barn” (Thomas J. Besler and Erica Bigelow); “The Play That Goes Wrong” (Savannah Bay Strandin and Tristan Tapscott); “Beehive: The ‘60s Musical” (Kira Rangel); “Freaky Friday” and Disney’s “Beauty & the Beast” (Jack Carslake, Quinn Cason and Colin Stansky).
Happy to be back
Moore was last seen at Circa as Ellie in the 2018 production of “Freaky Friday.” Originally from Biloxi, Miss., she graduated from The University of Southern Mississippi.
“It’s been four years, but I’m happy to be back,” Moore said of Circa. Bigelow (a New York University alum) didn’t even know they both tried out for “Disaster!” until they realized they were both cast.
“I was in a show in New York that was supposed to run forever and you could leave at any time,” Bigelow said. “Michaela got an email too about auditioning and then we talked after we both got in the show.”
“I was really excited,” she said. Moore added: “I was excited that I was going to be among so many friends.”
Bigelow was recently in New York City making her Off-Broadway debut in “The Office: A Musical Parody,” which she began this past January. Circa credits include “Disenchanted” (Cinderella), “Seussical” (Mayzie), “Winter Wonderland” (Breeze), “Elephant and Piggie” (Piggie), “Beehive” (Allison), and “Church Basement Ladies in You Smell Barn” (Beverly).
The last thing she did at Circa was sing backup for the New Year’s Eve 2021 Neil Diamond tribute, “Solitary Man,” starring Bootlegger Brad Hauskins. It’s coming back to Circa in August, but Bigelow won’t be in it.
“The Office” musical has been running several years in Times Square, with a rotating cast. Bigelow acted in the ensemble as a swing (or understudy) for female characters, including Phyllis, Pam and Angela. She went on as Pam in March and April. Her first rehearsal was the afternoon of March 31, and went on to perform it that night.
“It was crazy,” Bigelow recalled, noting she subbed for a sick actress. “It was sad my family couldn’t come, because it was so short notice. It was exhilarating. It’s wild.”
“You learn all the stuff; it’s in your brain,” she said. “You’re anxious about it, because you never when you’re gonna get called to go on. So I would go there every day and wait to see what was going to happen.”
In “Disaster!,” the singing nun does “Never Can Say Goodbye” and “Torn Between Two Lovers.” Bigelow and Moore don’t really have scenes together on stage.
Many different characters
“We are all constantly running on and off,” Moore said. “That’s kind of what makes it entertaining, because as the audience, you’re watching so many different characters and plot points.”
Hauskins plays multiple roles in the show, among other ensemble actors. “I think for some of them, you won’t be able to recognize who they come out as,” Moore said.
“We really could have a huge ensemble, but I like that it’s just us,” Bigelow said. “You’re gonna relate to one character. and if you’re not cheering for anybody, you’re gonna love the music. You cannot not love it.”
“I wasn’t alive when this music came out, and I love it,” she added. “I want to listen to ‘Hot Stuff’ every day now. This is my jam. There’s something for everyone.”
Moore said what’s brilliant about the writing of the show is, it doesn’t give the audience a chance to breathe.
“This is my third production of this show and I’m still finding new things in it, because I can’t stop laughing,” she said. “I think the misconception with parody and jukebox musicals is they’re written just to showcase the music. They are, but the book of it is so brilliantly, comedically written, that you can’t go wrong when you see it.”
Moore appreciates the intimacy of performing at dinner theaters.
“With dinner theater audiences, there’s even more of a relationship between the audience and the people on stage,” she said. “You’re not just spectators watching us. You’re having your dinner and drinks. We’re part of your mealtime activities. It’s kind of cool you chose us to be a part of that. There’s something different about it; I like it a lot.”
“It’s so much of an experience,” Bigelow agreed. “I love when my family gets to come and see the shows, get the signature drinks. It’s fun.” Her father and grandparents drive six hours from Michigan for shows, and her mom flies from Georgia.
The new Circa show has Ron May back as music director. With Kendall McKasson as stage manager and props designer, the show’s creative team includes assistant stage manager, Emmett Boedeker; scenic designer, Joe Klug; costume designer, Bradley Jensen; lighting designer, Heather Hauskins; production manager, Jeremy Littlejohn; technical director, Nicholas Divarco and scenic artist Becky Meissen.
“Disaster!” will be presented through Sept. 10, 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’s wait staff, the Bootleggers, will precede all performances. Tickets are $58.55 for the evening dinner-and-show productions and $51.73 for the Wednesday matinées.
Reservations are available through the Circa ’21 ticket office. For reservations, contact the theater at 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island, or by calling 309-786-7733 ext. 2.