It’s not often that Circa ’21 presents brand-new shows, and it’s latest is nearly that.
“Just Desserts” — a musical comedy that had its world premiere last summer — is now at the Rock Island dinner theater through May 14 and the cooks behind the tasty dish are certainly having fun in the kitchen.
In the story, five strangers put their hearts, reputations and baking skills on the line to become the crème de la crème of bakers at a county fair. The heat is on to create three different types of desserts during the finals.
Among the competition’s eccentric contestants is a determined young woman dreaming of opening her own bakery. There’s a sexy nail technician who wants to fit in. Plus, a shy school nurse who doesn’t want to be there at all, a mysterious man from Brooklyn who arouses suspicion about his past and the reigning champion who is confident that she’ll garner yet another victory this year.
They’re all sure to get their “Just Desserts” at the Jefferson County Bake-Off in this hilarious theatrical experience that boasts a little mystery, a little romance, some potential cheating and some back-stabbing, with the results sure to prove deliciously satisfying, according to a Circa release.
Directing for Circa is venue veteran Ashley Becher, who previously helmed “Seussical” and appeared in the theater’s recent “Winter Wonderland.” Becher also directed last summer’s Countryside Community Theatre production of “Newsies: The Musical.”
“Seussical” (in December) was a fast process to get up and going and she said they had great audiences for it. “Just Desserts” is her first Circa mainstage directing and choreographing gig.
“It’s been such a blessing, because I have such an amazing cast,” Ashley said recently. “We’ve been saying the whole process, just how wonderful it’s been. It’s really been a joy-fest in rehearsal, just excellent talent and really great personalities. That makes it all the better. I am so thankful for it; I feel really blessed.”
“We are so thankful to our props people, for getting us all our ingredients, and replenishing that,” she said of the real food items on stage. “We do use some actual food in the show.”
With performers Marc Christopher and Lexi Rae Smith making their Circa ’21 debuts, Becher’s six-person cast is completed by returning actors Bobby Becher (“The Play that Goes Wrong”), Elsa Besler (“The Play That Goes Wrong”), Sarah Hayes (“The Savannah Sipping Society”) and Shelley Walljasper (“Disenchanted”). TJ Besler, Kiera Lynn and the director herself will serve as understudies.
Bobby (Ashley’s husband) is in his fourth straight show for Circa. “Doing rehearsals for this during the day, and doing ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ at night meant for some long, tiring days, but it’s worth it,” he said. “That’s what we signed up for; that’s what we want to do — is just to continue to work here.”
He was in “Winter Wonderland,” “Seussical,” “Play That Goes Wrong,” and now “Just Desserts.” Bobby also is looking forward to doing “Beauty and the Beast” this summer. Ashley also is directing the children’s musical “Grace for President,” which will open next month. She starts rehearsals for that March 31, and Walljasper is music directing it.
Cooking up theatrical delights
Circa is her first dinner theater, and she was recommended to the venue by friend Quinn Mei Lysaght, who was in “Disenchanted” last fall. “She loved it,” Smith said.
“So far, it’s been nothing but a wonderful experience,” she said of Circa. “It’s kinda cool getting to hear the pre-show; that’s such a really neat aspect to it. Everybody’s been wonderful. It’s such a smooth experience.”
Smith plays Emma in the show (about her age), who graduated with a business degree to become a successful baker. Emma has done the bake-off before, and hopes to win.
“I think the moral of the story is, you have to change and work together, and grow as a person before you can really make something of yourself,” she said.
All the characters are very distinct in the show, Smith said. “There’s some pettiness that goes on. One character is very shy and reserved. Another is very bubbly and outgoing, and doesn’t really have a filter on anything she says or does. They all kind of learn to work together as it goes.”
The county fair is in the fictional Jefferson County, and Circa veteran Bobby Becher plays the host, a local meteorologist.
“It’s being televised in front of a live studio audience, and it’s not necessarily up to the standards of my character’s choosing,” he said. “I’m trying to make this the big, exciting, nationally recognized television show that I want it to be. It keeps getting interrupted by county fair things, by unprofessional bakers who aren’t living up to my standards.”
“Each one of the characters are archetypal, and there will be something for just about everyone to relate to, at one point or another,” Becher said. “There are plenty of rifts between people, but eventually they do all grow to become friends, and friendly competitors.”
Walljasper plays the four-time champion returning to defend her title.
“Emma is very jealous of Mildred,” Smith said of Walljasper’s character. “She definitely wants to make it on her own and beat Mildred, rather than look up to her.”
It’s thrilling for the cast and crew to stage just the second production of “Just Desserts,” since its Connecticut premiere last summer.
“I think it’s really exciting – you get to build a character you of what is just text,” Smith said.
“We have worked relatively closely with the writers,” Bobby said. “They had a couple drafts for us to choose from – what we liked from both scripts and the scores. The composer was very clear that we were able to change keys and things like that.”
“We are able to cater this very specifically to our cast and our audience,” he said.
“They’ve been very keen, too, to get our feedback on it,” Ashley Becher said. “To see where a story line wasn’t super clear in he script, and we could help clarify that.”
“Similarly to ‘Waitress,’ this show is about people overcoming obstacles from their past, and stepping into their future,” she said. “I think it has a really inspiring message for audiences, especially at a time when finding commonality with people who are seemingly different from you is a really important topic.”
Unlike “Waitress” (the 2015 Sara Bareilles hit musical also about baking), which has clear lead characters, “Just Desserts” is more an ensemble show, Ashley said.
“Everyone really carries their equal weight in the show, and has a great relationship with each other. It’s honestly really fun to watch,” she said.
“It’s fun to see the audiences get into the different food aspects of it, and see different dishes they’re making,” she said.
Smith said she is not a baker or cook in real life.
“I think it would be an awesome thing to learn. I’ve learned already, just from this production,” she said. “I’m not skilled in that. We do have some good bakers in the cast.”
Circa has fake cake contest
The 15 artificial cakes displayed on stage were all made by area residents for a Circa contest. The deadline was March 7, and on Friday, March 18, a winner was chosen, to receive four free tickets to the show. Everyone who submitted got one free ticket, and second and third place winners got two tickets.
“At the employee preview, we voted,” Ashley said, noting they’ll stay on set through the run. “It’s a great way to include the community, especially in a show like this, which is all about community.”
The first-place winner was Jonni Gilbraith of Orion; second was Rhondda Homfeldt of Geneseo, and third Kristy Cox of Muscatine.
After the Circa run, Smith will perform at Myers Dinner Theatre in Hillsboro, Ind., including playing Little Red in “Into the Woods.” That will be a dream role for her, starting the week after “Just Desserts” closes.
“I actually got to do the show in high school, when I was Cinderella,” she said. “It’ll be exciting to tackle a new part.”
Area favorite Ron May takes the reins as musical director of “Just Desserts.” Additional members of the show’s creative team include scenic designer Susie Holgersson, lighting designer and production manager Jeremy Littlejohn, costume designer Greg Hiatt (his last Circa production after a 29-year-plus career), sound designer Sam Ramont, stage manager Kendall McKasson, technical director Nick Divarco and assistant stage manager and deck manager Emmett Boedeker.
The featured dessert on Circa’s menu for “Just Desserts” is a lemon cake — described as a “delicate, light cake” that’s a “is a delicious mix of lemon citrus and a hint of spice.” The signature dessert is called Circa’s Chocolate Caramel Colossal — a warm chocolate bundt cake covered in fudge, topped with vanilla ice cream, caramel, whipped cream and a cherry.
“Just Desserts” will be presented through May 14, on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 5:30 p.m. and Wednesday matinées at 1:30 p.m. Pre-show entertainment featuring the theatre’s wait staff, the Bootleggers also will precede all performances. Ticket prices are $58.55 per person for the evening dinner-and-show productions and $51.73 for the matinées.
Reservations are available through the Circa ’21 ticket office, 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island, or by calling 309-786-7733 ext. 2.