It’s easy to see why shows like “Church Basement Ladies” and “Grumpy Old Men” are so popular at Circa ’21 and beyond.

Both taking place in the same quirky, nostalgic rural Minnesota theatrical universe, the CBL series (there are now an astounding nine shows) and its sibling “Grumpy Old Men: The Musical” – which recently opened at the Rock Island dinner theater for the second time in five seasons – seemingly share much in common:

The cast of Circa’s “Grumpy Old Men,” set in Wabasha, Minn.
  • An aching longing for what’s treasured as the “good old days”
  • Colorful, cute, funny and irresistible characters
  • Lessons on how to savor life and live it to the fullest
  • Lots of corny jokes and strong Minnesota accents
  • Full-throated affection for family and marriage
  • Personal, familiar crises resolved in comforting, triumphant conclusions
  • In the case of Circa, the same director for all (Curt Wollan) and the same dependable, audience favorite co-star (Tom Walljasper)

The goofy pastor in the CBL series, Walljasper reprises his “Grumpy” role from 2019 as Max Goldman, one of two bitter, feuding widowers – the title characters in the blissfully entertaining (though long at times) new show.

Circa veterans Brad Hauskins and Tom Walljasper play bitter enemies and neighbors in the new production.

While the CBL series spans a Minnesota Lutheran church (and fictional town, East Cornucopia) from 1959 to 1979, “Grumpy Old Men” is ostensibly set in the present day (in the real Wabasha, Minn., along the Mississippi River north of Rochester), though the vibes it gives off echo the ‘60s (with mobile phones).

Based on the popular 1993 movie starring Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Ann-Margret, and Burgess Meredith, the “Grumpy” life-affirming musical tells the story of two aging next-door neighbors (who must be over 70), Max and John, who have been feuding for more than 50 years.

But when the beautiful and charming Ariel (also a widow) moves in across the street, the bickering neighbors’ rivalry is raised to new heights, and this theatrical delight raises the question: Can her love and compassion restore their friendship?

Kim VanDerGinst is the center of attention in this scene, which features Savannah Bay Strandin, left, Tristan Tapscott, Jon Horvath, Brad Hauskins and Tom Walljasper.

Circa ’21 was just the second theater in the nation to stage the fun musical when it played here in 2019 (it premiered in Maine in 2018). Head Bootlegger (and frequent featured actor) Brad Hauskins was in that Circa production, but not this part (as John), and Walljasper seems to relish reprising his nasty role as Max. The old rivals hurl insults at each other fast and furious, for sure.

Other returning Circa veterans this time include the peerless John Payonk as the wise bait-shop owner Chuck and Tristan Tapscott as the earnest, solid son of Max, Jacob.

The all-star (and familiarity) factor of this production is ramped up exponentially by filling of key roles with other Circa vets – Kim (Kurtenbach) VanDerGinst as the bewitching, stylish Ariel; Jon Horvath as the hilarious Grandpa; Shelley Walljasper as the scheming, cartoonishly threatening IRS agent; Savannah Bay Strandin as the lovely, no-nonsense daughter of John (Melanie), and Bootlegger Sydney Dexter as the stereotypically chipper, Midwestern postal carrier.

Shelley Walljasper plays a mean, insistent IRS agent seeking to get unpaid back taxes from John (Brad Hauskins).

Two of the many show highlights are great, very fitting duets – “Parents & Paradise,” where Jacob and Melanie dream of their future, sung beautifully by the real-life spouses (since October 2022), Tapscott and Strandin, and Act II’s reprise of “Snyder Comes Along,” with the adorable Walljaspers, longtime spouses.

John seems the more likable of the main old men — a retired high-school history teacher. Max is a retired TV repairman who loves fishing, and before they were married, they fought over the woman who became John’s wife. (Why anyone loves ice fishing is beyond me…)

John was married to May, Max’s old high-school sweetheart, until she passed away, and Max has for decades held a grudge that John “stole” her from him. Max appeared to have a happy marriage, and all three main characters have survived their spouses. The men now fight over the affections of Ariel.

Something fishy is going on in this scene, with Tom Walljasper, left, John Payonk, Brad Hauskins and Jon Horvath.

Under the blizzard of one-liners (and far more sex-related jokes than the CBL series), “Grumpy Old Men” is primarily a poignant story about choices, love, loss, friendship, sacrifice and forgiveness. It teaches us to not take the people in our lives for granted.

One of my favorite songs is Hauskins’s “When No One’s Around,” where he confesses his love for playing piano and cooking dinner, and the easygoing soft-shoe number has a nice dance break. Hauskins reveals an attractive and vulnerable relatability. He and VanDerGinst also share great chemistry in their cute dinner scene.

Special kudos to costume designer Bradley Robert Jensen for outfitting her in some wildly colorful dresses. The complex set design by Erica Zaffarano (with many moving parts) includes an eye-catching, very tall statue (for Ariel’s house) of a male nude, whose member plays a key “hanging” part in two scenes.

The full cast of Circa’s “Grumpy Old Men,” playing through May 6th.

Walljasper’s Max has the bigger ego and is more eager to do the deed with Ariel, as he sets his sights high (and low) with the exuberant “In Like Flynn.”

Payonk is absolutely spectacular, as he impresses with an imposing, operatic voice in the powerful “An Angel.” In the second act, Haukins is affecting in “An Angel” reprise, where he pays heartbreaking tribute to his late wife in an ethereal voice.

After a traumatic event toward the show close, Walljasper reveals Max’s humanity in the similarly, deeply touching “Family Or Friend.”

On the perennially lighter note, Horvath keeps his bushy, white Santa Claus beard (from Circa’s Santa musical this past holiday season) and is a consistent hoot as the “dirty old man.” He’s got tremendous energy for a 94-year-old Grandpa, always looking for his own score and fires off many choice one-liners.

Hauskins, VanDerGinst and Walljasper, navigate a snowmobile on the Circa stage.

Kim Bogus also is consistently funny as the ditzy Punky (Chuck’s cousin), though she pretends to strum a ukulele in “Your Own Home,” which Payonk also proceeds to do. I couldn’t help thinking, even though the accompaniment is pre-recorded, why not fake play an actual instrument then?

“Grumpy Old Men” will run through May 6, 2023 at Circa, presented 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. The excellent pre-show entertainment featuring the theater’s wait staff, the Bootleggers also will precede all performances.

Tickets are $60.55 for the evening dinner-and-show productions and $53.73 for the matinées, available through the Circa ’21 ticket office at 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island, or by calling 309-786-7733, ext. 2.