Circa ’21 brings an extra special “Winter Wonderland” for this holiday season

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Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse, Rock Island, presents “Winter Wonderland,” through December 29.

The new holiday production at Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse, “Winter Wonderland,” is a special gift in more ways than one to its author, cast and crew.

In this heartwarming musical tale (penned by head Bootlegger and frequent actor Brad Hauskins), a dad wants to celebrate an old-fashioned Christmas like the ones of his youth. It leads him and his family first to a historic Christmas-tree farm, and then on a magical journey to the year 1921, where he learns that while remembering the past is important, the best way to hold on to tradition is to enjoy the Christmas present.

Hauskins’ musical revue originally was presented at Circa during the 2000 holidays, and while his new version retains the former show’s title, situation and characters, it’s being staged with a new storyline and a new score of old favorites arranged and orchestrated by the author, Laura Hammes and Mason Moss.

As Hauskins explained of this new show, you’ll hear a lot of traditional Christmas music, “but a little differently from what we did 20 years ago. And all the songs are songs from that [1921] era, but they’re not necessarily all Christmas-themed — there’s some Irving Berlin and other songs that we’ve sort of incorporated into the storytelling,” he said.

“Winter Wonderland” has the exact same cast as last year (in a never-seen version), when it was in rehearsals for about a week before Circa had to close in early November 2020 due to COVID, not reopening until March 17, 2021.

Circa ’21 presents “Winter Wonderland,” through Dec. 29 (Photo courtesy of Circa ’21 – L-R: Erica Lee Bigelow, Ashley Becher, Wrigley Mancha, Krianna Walljasper)

The cast filmed several scenes and songs, so they could have a video reference to resume rehearsals this fall. Bobby Becher, whose wife Ashley is in the cast and served as dance captain, said that video proved very helpful.

“Re-mounting some things and having some things that had to be adjusted, the collaboration was very much at the center of this process,” he said Wednesday.

“For us, there was a lot of emotion, obviously,” Becher said of having to cancel the 2020 show. “The script was really, really relevant to 2020. And coming back with the adjustments that were made, it becomes really relevant for 2021.

“We’re literally going through the same steps across the stage, in the rehearsal studio,” he said. “It brought back a lot of memories.”

Directing is Sean McCall, former artistic director at the Old Creamery Theatre in Amana, Iowa, who also directed the Rock Island theater’s comedy “Shear Madness” in 2016. The cast of 10 includes first-time Circa ’21 performers Wrigley Mancha (Quad City Music Guild’s “Matilda: The Musical”), Mark McGinn (Music Guild’s “The Drowsy Chaperone”), and local eighth-grader Cameryn Bergthold.

Seven familiar talents are returning to the stage: Ashley Mills Becher (“Saturday Night Fever”), Bobby Becher (“Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn”), Derrick Bertram (“Newsies”), Erica Lee Bigelow (“Disenchanted”), Savannah Bay Strandin (“Beehive: The ’60s Musical”), Tristan Tapscott (“Kinky Boots”), and Krianna Walljasper (“Annie”).

Coming full circle at Circa

Now is a full-circle moment for Becher, especially as a cast member from the summer’s “Saturday Night Fever,” which also had to be postponed from its original opening in March 2020. “That really started the weird year for Circa, and we’ve shown this to people who’ve never seen it before and we can move on a little bit. So there is a lot of emotion for us getting to do it,” he said.

Hauskins has lived with the show for over 20 years, noting in 2000, it was a completely different world then – not only pre-COVID, but before 9/11, the Iraq and Afghan wars, and bitter political polarization of recent years. The more innocent time featured a happier, more innocent “Winter Wonderland.”

“The 2000 show was kind of a Disney ride,” he said. “These characters go to a magical place and they live through these periods of time. They had fun everywhere they went; everybody was optimistic and happy.”

Circa ’21 presents “Winter Wonderland,” through Dec. 29 (Photo courtesy of Circa ’21 – L-R: Erica Lee Bigelow, Derrick Bertram, Cameryn Bergthold, Krianna Walljasper, Savannah Strandin, Tristan Tapscott, Ashley Becher, Bobby Becher, Mark Leo McGinn)

This version is more about hope and perseverance, Hauskins said. In 2020, they prepared to open for an audience of just 50 people, so that didn’t call for a big cast and super dazzling production.

“There’s still that need for people to feel hopeful,” he said of today. “That’s what this is about.”

In the story, the father looks at a picture of 100 years ago and says, “That looks like happiness to me,” Hauskins said. “That looks like a world without problems.”

Of course, people in 1921 also had their own challenges, especially just coming out of another global pandemic (Spanish flu), and end of World War I, he noted.

“Winter Wonderland” doesn’t address current problems head-on, but they’re a definite unspoken subtext.

“There’s a lyric in the song ‘Winter Wonderland’ that weighs heavily into the show: ‘To face unafraid the plans that we made’,” Hauskins said. “And to me, that was the hook of what I’m trying to say. That’s what living in the present day means. We make plans, we celebrate this holiday in spite of all the things that are going wrong and we face our plans unafraid. That’s a really appropriate statement for what we’re trying to do.”

“To me, the 2020 revelation for me too, and still today, what we missed out on and what we’re missing now is the ability to feel comfortable – waking up in the morning and knowing nothing’s gonna happen,” he said. “I think where we went from 2020 to 2021, thinking about all these people who had this holiday structure in their lives every year, that suddenly got destroyed by COVID.”

In the show, there’s no mention of COVID, but having the show means people can do things they couldn’t do last year, Hauskins said.

“Maybe that’s part of this process – because a lot of people missed things, and when we miss things, we get desperate for them to be back to normal,” he said.

One point in the show, Bobby’s character says, “A lot of things were broken last year,” and “that’s about as deep as we go into feeling any kind of resentment or anger about it,” Hauskins said. “When do we get to move on? And interestingly, they move back.”

Embracing hope to survive

Becher noted hope is key to get through times like this, and the show reveals how three different families face the holiday. “Winter Wonderland” is the first show he’s been in where Ashley actually plays his wife.

They’ve been very glad to be back to performing before full-capacity audiences.

Photo courtesy of Circa ’21 – L-R: Mark Leo McGinn, Erica Lee Bigelow, Derrick Bertram, Krianna Walljasper.

“This is a lot more personal for us as a group, and for my character specifically,” Bobby said. “I feel fortunate to have been prepared. It is still pretty fresh to a lot of people; the cast certainly, there’s a little silver lining when you have something taken away – when you get it back, you can appreciate it a lot more.

“Especially when you’re doing a show about appreciating things that were taken away, it all feels like it culminates with a very meaningful and important process for us to be part of right now, and I hope for the audience as well,” he said.

McCall said this holiday show is more meaningful (compared to other holiday titles), given the past 20 months.

“For all of us, any theater performer, last year we thought we were coming back in front of people after eight months of being away,” he said. “I didn’t get back on stage until this summer. The thing about this show that is so great, last year Brad was so specific to the year that we were in and feeling, and he’s done a beautiful job of bringing that forward to 2021.”

Circa ’21 presents “Winter Wonderland,” through Dec. 29 (Photo courtesy of Circa ’21 – L-R: Bobby Becher, Ashley Becher, Wrigley Mancha, Savannah Strandin, Tristan Layne Tapscott, Erica Lee Bigelow, Krianna Walljasper)

“Brad has done a great job of making it feel relevant and today,” McCall said. “It is so perfectly 2021, or Circa ’21, that I think anybody who sees it, it will speak to them about the holidays.”

When Bobby’s character says, “I want to do everything this Christmas,” everyone can relate, the director said.

It’s also very profound now, since Hauskins’ mother died a couple months ago, at age 81, not due to COVID. The show gives new meaning to the well-worn “Auld Lang Syne” – “We’ll take a cup of kindness yet and move on,” he said. “We’ll start over.”

“That idea of loss, for many of us, it’s not just people that we lost,” Hauskins said. COVID did have a lot to do with his mom’s death, since her life revolved around visiting family and friends.

“She just was shut into a small apartment, and she was too old to adapt and adjust,” he said. “For me, that’s a loss that I think — we all have these things that we lost, even if they are vaguely related. Some people lost family because of politics – families divided and torn apart, that won’t speak to each other.

“Is that a result of COVID? So, every single person in our audience will have lost something,” Hauskins said. Doing a big, bright, sparkly show isn’t the goal now, but for people to come together, appreciate what they have, and to face unafraid, the plans that they made.

The show strikes a balance, by not having people lamenting or feeling sorry for themselves, and by the same token, not being carefree, footloose and fancy-free, Hauskins said.

“I just want people to leave this show, get up in the morning and I know it’s not gonna be what it was, but I’m gonna make some plans today,” he said.

McCall was reminded of how collaborative theater is, with every role on and off stage contributing to the entire product. “Everything comes together and we’re only as great as our weakest link,” he said.

“Winter Wonderland” will be presented through Dec. 29, on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:45 p.m., Sundays at 5:45 p.m. and Wednesday matinées at 1:30 p.m. Ticket prices are $53.55 for the evening dinner-and-show productions and $46.73 for the plated-lunch matinées.

Reservations are available through the Circa ’21 ticket office, at 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island, or by calling 309-786-7733 ext. 2.

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