I’ll drink to that – after nearly six months being shuttered, the mainstage at Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse will again spring to life on Sept. 9, with the opening of the sprightly, saucy Southern comedy, “Savannah Sipping Society.”

Denny Hitchcock

“What a thrill it is to be able to welcome our guests back to the theatre, for the first time since March 14,” owner/producer Denny Hitchcock said this week.

“During the five months we’ve been closed, many of our guests have contacted us to be sure we are OK and will be able to open again. It’s been very heartwarming, and we are all so thankful for their tremendous support,” he said. “Everyone has been so kind and understanding as they call to renew their subscriptions and make reservations. We are all very happy to be welcoming everyone back with the charming comedy, ‘Savannah Sipping Society.’ On behalf of our staff, I want to thank everyone for being so gracious and caring as we prepare to reopen.”

Because of the Phase 4 rules of Restore Illinois, capacity for each show is limited to only 50 people (out of the 334-capacity theater). For the safety of staff and guests, temperatures will be taken and masks must be worn to enter and exit the theater. Anyone over 100.4 degrees will not be able to work or attend a show, said Brett Hitchcock, director of audience development.

Life under Covid-19 will be much different for Circa staff and patrons, as all wait staff will wear masks and gloves, and no buffets will be available, only table service.

They will use every other table in each row, and staggered seating by rows. “We are going to allow for plenty of distance between everybody at tables,” Hitchcock said.

Guests also must wear masks when they move around the theater. Diners can choose two of four entrees (with a starch and vegetable), with the new option of an appetizer of shrimp cocktail ($8.50) or stuffed mushrooms ($6.25). With each meal, salad or cottage cheese come with (discontinuing the soup choice).

“That’s a first; that’s something we’ve been talking about for several years,” Hitchcock said of appetizers. “That is one of those things that Covid has just caused us to reconsider and go ahead and implement. There’s a lot of ideas we had, even things like Music on the Marquee. These last six months, we’ve had to think outside the box like you’ve never had to before – on ways to be creative and do anything you can to try and entertain people and make some money.

Overall, ticket prices are going up $1.50 per person, in a service fee, to cover increased costs of doing business. “The cost of food is skyrocketing, the cost of owning and operating a business is going up,” Hitchcock said. “Minimum wage is going up, which is a big part of it as well. We had to implement something to offset some of that.”

New prices will be $56.55 for evening shows, $49.73 for Wednesday matinees, $35.55 for students (11-18), and $2 off for seniors (age 60+).

Circa management has asked the Illinois governor’s office to reclassify the 43-year-old dinner theater as a restaurant, so it doesn’t have to be limited to the 50-seat capacity for Illinois indoor theater.

Denny and Brett Hitchcock at Circa ’21, 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island.

“They haven’t reclassified us, even though the city of Rock Island has reclassified us, and our liquor license is classified as a restaurant license,” Hitchcock said. “We still haven’t gotten word back from the state, so we’re operating under the theater umbrella — which basically lumps us in with movie theaters and with places like the Adler, that bring in road shows.

“Which is very frustrating, because we’re not like those places at all,” he said. “We have the whole food component. Half of our ticket price is food, half is show. There’s so many examples of ways that we are not just a theater. We’re a theater/restaurant.”

They’ve worked with state Sen. Mike Halpin on getting reclassified as a restaurant, which would allow Circa to operate at 50-percent capacity. “Savannah Sipping Society” (by the popular playwriting team of Jones Hope Wooten, of “Mama Won’t Fly,” “Dixie Swim Club” etc.) has a cast of just four – Kim Kurtenbach, Shelley Walljasper, Sherry Konjura and Sarah Hayes.

In the story, after a hot yoga class brings four women “of a certain age” together, they decide their sassy humor and Southern charms are better suited for solving life’s problems over cocktails, according to a synopsis. Over months of misadventures, these middle-aged women successfully bond and find the confidence to reclaim the enthusiasm for life they’ve lost through the years.

Veteran Circa director Warner Crocker (who led “Shear Madness” and “Diamonds & Divas” last year) is helming “Savannah Sipping Society,” and may stage actors farther apart than normal, and farther from the front row of the audience. Actors will wear masks when off-stage, but not on, Hitchcock said.

“Savannah Sipping Society” will be the first show back on the mainstage.

They will spray disinfectant throughout the building, which lasts for 90 days and kills 99.9 percent of all germs. “In that respect, we’re going above and beyond what the CDC is requiring,” he said. “We also have a whole plan implemented as far as sanitation, before and after people are here, and even while they’re here.”

“We’re really taking this very seriously and even in some respects, going above and beyond what the CDC is requiring,” he said.

“That’s why are able to reopen,” Hitchcock said of the “Savannah” small cast, which applies to much of the next season. “With the big shows we had to cancel this year – being “Saturday Night Fever,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Guys & Dolls” – those were all big, big shows, with casts of at least 20. It was big royalties, big sets and lots of costumes. Those are the kinds of shows, we would have been upside down before we even opened the doors, with just 50 people.”

“Here we are in a situation where we don’t know things are going to get better,” he said. “We don’t know when the regulations are going to be released – is it going to be after the first of the “year, later this fall? Is it going to be spring? With all that uncertainty about when we’ll have an antidote or vaccine that’s able to be mass distributed throughout the country, whenever that time is gonna come, we really have no idea and went back to the drawing board.

“Saturday Night Fever” was all set to open when Covid closed Circa in mid-March.

“We went back to a lot of smaller shows, with the exception of ‘Saturday Night Fever’,” Hitchcock said of the 44th season, to start in November. “Fever” has a cast of about 20, and all the others are a half-dozen or less in each. That 44th season schedule is:

  • “Winter Wonderland” (Nov. 11 – Dec. 30). A heartwarming new musical, written by head Bootlegger Brad Hauskins and performed at Circa in 1995, is about a dad’s wish to celebrate an old-fashioned Christmas. It leads him and his family on a magical journey to another time where he learns that while remembering the past is important, the best way to hold on to tradition is to enjoy the Christmas present.
  • “The Play That Goes Wrong” (Jan. 13 – March 13). Welcome to Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society’s newest production: “The Murder at Haversham Manor,” where things are quickly going from bad to utterly disastrous — and outrageously hilarious.
  • The Church Basement Ladies in “You Smell Barn!” (March 17 – May 15). The latest in the popular series, that began with Circa doing the original in 2007. With plenty of crazy antics, loads of fresh laughs and spanking new original songs, “You Smell Barn” celebrates rural life in the 1950s.

    The original holiday musical (with favorite hits) opens in November.

  • “Beehive” (May 19 – July 10). This musical revue is a fun, frothy flashback to the fabulous females of ’60s pop music. “Beehive” matches big voices with big hairdos, paying tribute to the ladies who unmistakably left their mark, such as Connie Francis, The Supremes, Annette Funicello, Janis Joplin, Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin.
  • “Saturday Night Fever” (July 14 – Sept. 11). A year and a half after it was originally scheduled, Circa’s plan is stayin’ alive, with the stage musical based on the 1977 movie phenomenon that launched the disco era and made John Travolta and The Bee Gees household names.
  • “Disenchanted!” (Sept. 15 – Nov. 6). In an adult parody of fairy tales, Snow White and her disenchanted princesses shine in a hilarious, naughty hit musical for grown-ups that’s anything but Grimm. These royal renegades tossed off their tiaras to set the record straight in this outrageous, not-for-the-kids musical.

“Some of the shows had been on our radar for a while. Some shows we planned to do anyway, like the new ‘Church Basement Ladies’ show, that was already set,” Brett Hitchcock said. “Again, it’s a small cast and that’s been the most successful series of shows we’ve ever done. That was kind of a no-brainer.”

The Church Basement Ladies will return in the latest of the nostalgic series, “You Smell Barn.”

“Saturday Night Fever” was ready to open in March, with the set and costumes done, before the theater shut down. Circa reached out to all the cast members who never got to do it, and the majority of the cast has accepted it, he said.

“We’re glad that, fingers crossed, we’re finally going to be able to do ‘Saturday Night Fever.’ Besides ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ that one had the most buzz this season, and so many people were so disappointed that was one of the shows we couldn’t do,” Hitchcock said.

The same director and musical director will be involved as well, and they hope to be back at 100-percent audience capacity by then.

“Disenchanted” is an edgy musical, with a new made-up rating of “PG-15.” “There are a lot of things in there that really aren’t child appropriate,” Hitchcock said. “It’s kind of taking a risk and going out on a limb like we’ve done in the past with shows like ‘Full Monty’ and others, where I think people will enjoy it. There’s gonna be some questionable things in there, some innuendo. But above and beyond that, it’s a hilarious show. I think people are gonna really enjoy it too.”

“That’s one that really came about because of Covid,” he added. “That really wasn’t on the radar, as we were looking for something different, fun, a little edgy. I’m not aware that many of our friends in the dinner-theater industry have done it, so I think we’re going to be the guinea pig for it, and see how it goes.”

Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre in Indianapolis reopened July 8 with “Beehive” but closed its doors Aug. 10 (after Covid trends worsened), and plans to reopen Oct. 1. Management said Mayor Joe Hogsett restricting audiences to 25 percent made it so that productions couldn’t be sustained financially.

Beef & Boards also had made safety changes including plated meals, reduced audience sizes, spaced seating of parties, germicidal lighting in all air handlers, and mask requirements for all.

The Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre in Fort Myers, Fla., planned to reopen with a full season on Aug. 20, at 50-percent capacity, with most of the same guidelines Circa will have. Broadway Palm operates under a restaurant license.

Alternate entertainment proves popular

While the main theater has been closed, Circa has certainly not been silent. It recently held the second of its “Music on the Marquee”

A full crowd attends the Aug. 16 Music on the Marquee.

concerts, outdoor events that both sold out. Patrons were seated at distanced tables on a closed 3rd Avenue, while performers sang atop the second-story marquee.

“When we tried the first one in June, Tristan Tapscott was instrumental in putting it together,” Hitchcock said. “It sold out in 24 hours and it was just amazing. There were some cast members that had some apprehension about getting on the marquee – was it load-bearing enough? Was it gonna hold them? We had no issues with that.”

“Once they did it, it was one of those situations, a lot of the cast members from ‘Saturday Night Fever’ who were a big part of the first one, and Bootleggers and other people said, wow, that looked so cool on social media and pictures that were taken, I wish I would have done it.”

“When we decided to do another one, with Brad and Tristan’s assistance, it came together really quickly. They had like 10 or 12 performers the first day,” Hitchcock said. “People jumped at the opportunity to do it, and it sold just as well as the first one. People enjoyed it.”

Kids rehearse with face shields at The Speakeasy.

The tables were 12 feet apart; most people feel more comfortable being outside versus inside, and Circa didn’t hear any concerns from audiences, he said.

Attendance for the Speakeasy shows next door (which started in July with a 50-capacity limit) has been up and down, Hitchcock said. “Every time you try something new, it takes a while to catch on. You just realize after a while, the market you thought that was going to be there for that particular show isn’t. I don’t think we’ve had that issue with any of them yet.”

Circa performers get ready for their debut atop the marquee in June.

The burlesque and drag shows have sold out. A new cabaret concept, “Broadway Backwards,” was led by the husband-and-wife team Bobby and Ashley Becher (who’s a Bettendorf native), who moved here recently from Florida, and it did well, too.

The first children’s show, “Rapunzel in the Wild West,” opened last weekend, with two more performances this Saturday – and it’s relatively rare to have a book musical at the Speakeasy. That’s also from the Bechers, and last Saturday sold out one, Hitchcock said.

“For the most part, ‘Rocky Horror’ is the only book show we do in there,” he said. “The way we’ve branded that room as being a more edgy, adult space, we were a little concerned at first how a kids’ show would play in there. Would people come into that space for a kids’ show, and they certainly have. They’ve got a great cast.”

“Rapunzel” performers at The Speakeasy.

For the new Mainstage shows, there will not be a full pre-show by the Bootleggers, simply because there will only be three or four Bootleggers working, at most. There may be a few numbers as a pre-show, Hitchcock said.

“We’d love to have them all back, but we can’t justify it. We don’t want to mess up their unemployment by bringing them back for a pre-show, which is just 15 minutes, they would be making very, very little.”

The “Rapunzel” show is a musical and interactive melodrama, with performances Saturday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Tickets are $9.50 each. On Sept. 3, the “Thursday Night Live” cabaret returns (with Bootleggers and other Circa favorite performers) at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 day of show.

For all Speakeasy shows, you must purchase tickets in quantities of 4 or 6 only, and must buy tickets for your entire party at the same time. You must wear a mask and have your temperature taken to enter the theater.

For more information and tickets, visit thecirca21speakeasy.com, circa21.com or call the ticket office at 309-786-7733, Ext. 2.

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Jonathan Turner has been covering the Quad-Cities arts scene for 25 years, first as a reporter with the Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, and then as a reporter with the Quad City Times. Jonathan is also an accomplished actor and musician who has been seen frequently on local theater stages, including the Bucktown Revue and Black Box Theatre.