Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse, Rock Island, has only been open for two months since March 14, yet it has creatively, persistently found alternate ways to offer local entertainment for people like me who are desperate for it.

Far from a luxury or a frill that can be easily excised, arts and culture have proven to be a vital lifeline during the devastating Covid-19 pandemic. As I’ve said before, the arts – at any time – help define who we are; they tell the story of us through a staggeringly diverse number of forms and genres. They lift us up, comfort us, inspire us, express what we may not be able to ourselves.

Circa ’21 Bootleggers sing in the finale of “Raise Your Glass.”

And in a relentless, isolating quarantine, when we typically can’t go out to see live music and theater, and support the priceless work of such talented performers, we treasure what we can get at home – through audio or video, whether it’s from Taylor Swift or Tristan Tapscott. It’s hard enough for an artist to make a living from their art in normal times, what they’re meant to do, and dreamt of doing their whole lives.

When that outlet to present their art in person, before an audience, is taken away, these brave artists didn’t just give up and withdraw from the world. The courageous, driven dreamers and doers, like Taylor and Tristan, have kept on doing it, and we should be ever so grateful.

Tapscott is a popular Circa veteran and one of my area favorites, including his impressive tenure heading up the former District Theatre, and Harrison Hilltop before that. On New Year’s Day, he posted a photo/poster montage of all that he was up to during the very odd year of 2020.

Tristan Tapscott

It was packed (not blank), filled with several virtual cabarets he was part of with Circa and its Speakeasy, the “Rocky Horror Show” he starred in at the Speakeasy and the brilliant idea he put together to host the first “Music on the Marquee” outside the theater in June.

Tapscott also recently organized and directed a special hour-long video, “Raise Your Glass,” to celebrate several people associated with the dinner theater in its venerable 43-year history – and to usher in what we all hope will be a much better, saner 2021.

Available online to stream through Friday, Jan. 8, the lovingly produced show – edited by lobby host Khalil Hacker – appropriately opens with Hacker welcoming us in the lobby as if we’re actually there for a show (I wish!).

And while we have to provide our own meal (rather than choosing from the Circa ’21 buffet and being served by the super-friendly performing wait staff, the Bootleggers), the program opens with a January 2020 number from the Bootleggers – the boisterous “Born Naked” (Ru Paul), fittingly before “Kinky Boots,” the last full musical done at Circa.

Two other leaders of the theater this crazy year, the charming, charismatic husband-and-wife team Bobby and Ashley Becher, provide an upbeat “Here’s To Love” (from the 2003 romantic comedy “Down With Love”). They pop Champagne, do a little dance and are totally irresistible.

One scene, with head Bootlegger Brad Hauskins on guitar, has painfully resonant lyrics, in the contemporary Phillip Phillips song, “Home,”

Brad Hauskin, Laura Hammes and Sunshine Ramsey perform at the Circa virtual cabaret.

which he sings with Laura Hammes and Sunshine Ramsey.

“Settle down, it’ll all be clear
Don’t pay no mind to the demons
They fill you with fear
The trouble it might drag you down
If you get lost, you can always be found

“Just know you’re not alone
‘Cause I’m going to make this place your home.”

That sure hits home in more ways than one, huh? We sure feel alone, but through this show, through experiencing great music and theater together, we’re always connected.

While “Home” here has a warm, holiday backdrop, Augustana theater professor Shelley Cooper chose a more austere setting for her powerful “Anything Goes” medley, remotely accompanied by Mason Moss. They both perform against bland cinder-block walls and the songs echo the brassy volume and personality of one of Cooper’s heroines, Ethel Merman.

Bootlegger Kirsten Sindelar, a big Disney fan, really gets into character by becoming Elsa – complete with blonde wig and snowflake pin — for her “Into the Unknown (from “Frozen 2”), passionately sung from home.

Bootlegger Kelsi Alenia in a scene from “Raise Your Glass.”

Circa veteran Joseph Baez offers both song (“Mary Did You Know?”) and story, reflecting on his cherished theater memories, since joining the “West Side Story” cast in 2007. He said he’s always felt home at Circa (me too!), welcomed by so many, and the institution has supported so many careers and lifelong relationships.

“Circa is a special place, full of magic, wonder and entertainment,” Baez said.

Director Seth Reines (who last led “Kinky Boots”) has known Circa owner/producer Denny Hitchcock 44 years and has been part of the theater since its start. In a recorded greeting from an Arizona pool, he thanked everyone for supporting Circa.

Business manager Diane Laake, who’s worked at Circa 38 years, recorded a message at her Christmas tree, noting “During this shutdown, my heart aches,” especially for the staff and actors who are unable to work “to spread the joy of live entertainment,” she said.

In three lovely female solos that shine, Victoria House does a poignant “Happy Days Are Here Again” (we wish!) outside at night, with holiday lights; Bootlegger Kelsi Alenia does a gentle, affectionate “Raise Your Glass” in honor of the new year, and Savannah Bay Strandin is just wonderful with “La Vie En Rose,” accompanying herself on ukulele.

There are a few excerpts from past Circa mainstage shows (showing us what we’ve lost) – “Holiday Inn” from 2019, “Kinky Boots” from early 2020, and “Million Dollar Quartet” from 2016.

Scenes from “Raise Your Glass.”

Sunshine Ramsey starts a much different “Raise Your Glass,” the Pink hit song, which becomes a rocking Zoom-style group number and Denny Hitchcock provides the deadpan “Why so serious?” line in his black tuxedo (with white bow tie).

Hitchcock (with his white Santa-like beard) offers a toast and a plea for a quick 2021 recovery, so everyone can return to the theater. The next show scheduled is mid-March with a Church Basement Ladies musical, “You Smell Barn.”

The “Raise Your Glass” virtual show closes with a relatively downbeat, casual Bootlegger performance of “In My Life,” in their normal street clothes (unmasked), from the Circa stage.

Make sure you watch to the very end, as Hitchcock returns with outtakes of his “Raise Your Glass” line, and isn’t so serious, busting out a few moves.

Tapscott and Doug Kutzli make a ghostly appearance in the middle of the video, to help promote a future virtual show. “Big Rock Candy Mountain” (in the musical and comedy spirit of “Southern Crossroads”) will be available online – at www.showtix4u.com – starting Feb. 6. The District Theatre presented the down-home production in Rock Island in 2014 and 2015.

“Broadway Backwards” available until Jan. 12

Another Circa video – led by the amazing Ashley Mills Becher and her husband Bobby – was filmed this past August in The Speakeasy. You can still see “Broadway Backwards,” known as a “miscast cabaret” through 12 a.m. Jan. 12 and it also is worth your time and treasure.

While the performances by kids and adults alike are decidedly uneven (as is the presence of mask wearing), it’s great fun to see each time how the songs will be approached, and what the performer twist is. It is jarring to see a show done in front of an actual audience – the state of Illinois allowed maximums of 50 patrons until Nov. 7 – and the jubilant reactions of the crowd again shows how appreciative people are.

Ashley Becher did the choreography and co-production for the special, as well as performed in several numbers.

The concept “Broadway Backwards” has been done in New York City, with “miscast” numbers – like flipping ages and genders of well-known songs. “We thought it would be a fun way to involve some local performers,” Ashley said in November, noting they used a few kids from shows that got canceled.

“It was a time for people to come together and have fun, and enjoy life,” she said. “We streamed it as well, so it was accessible for people who didn’t feel comfortable coming out, so they could get some arts in their life.”

In addition to gender and age switchups, the Speakeasy cast also cleverly updated lyrics of some songs. The opening “Tradition” (from “Fiddler on the Roof”) is comprised of some different groups, like “the ingenues” and “the chorus.”

About half-way through, Tristan Tapscott takes on the epic “And I Am Telling You” from “Dreamgirls,” and updated it to his current predicament, in a bittersweet interplay with Savannah Bay Strandin, who tries to console him and urges him to accept the fact that there will be no shows for a long while.

He stands his ground, defiant, clutching script pages, singing lyrics as if to his real love, the theater. “I’m not living without you” is one line that didn’t need to be changed, and instead of a significant other, Tapscott pleads, “It’s the best job I’ve ever known,” and the whole number is a cathartic, primal scream.

Bobby Becher and Barry Kramer dance in the “Hot Honey Rag.”

Though the Bechers don’t switch the genders on the classic “16 Going on 17” from “Sound of Music,” the characters and their attitudes are modernized, especially Ashley as a snarky, self-obsessed teen, glued to her phone.

Bobby Becher co-conceived, produced, performed in and co-edited the video.

Megan Warren gets to plumb the depths of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, which she music directed at Spotlight Theatre, singing his anthem “Out There.”

In two very cute age flips, Chloe Knobloch does the cynical saga of survival, “I’m Still Here” from “Follies” and Ellerie Hurley tackles the grandmotherly, jaunty font of wisdom, “No Time at All” from “Pippin.”

The kids return in a fun “Annie” medley toward the end of the 78-minute show, which includes Strandin doing an actually straightforward, non-obnoxious “Tomorrow,” as the sweetly, sincere dream of hope it should be (appropriately an aspiration for 2021).

Chloe (now 13) – who played Annie in Circa’s 2018 holiday-season show – is great in Miss Hannigan’s “Little Girls,” and she, Ellerie and Liam Knobloch also have fun in the intoxicating “Easy Street.”

Strandin does the gender switch by performing “Soul of a Man” from “Kinky Boots” and Barry Kramer is a smiling, playful ball of energy in “Star Tar” from “Dames at Sea,” complete with a sailor cap, anchor T-shirt and exuberant tap dance.

Kramer displays much more of his dancing bona fides with Bobby Becher, who are brilliantly stylish and precise in the “Hot Honey Rag” from “Chicago,” the finale meant for Roxie and Velma. Wow!

Bobby and Tristan play a gay couple in “Take Me Or Leave Me” from “Rent” (instead of the lesbian original), and showcase their big

A scene from “Broadway Backwards.”

personalities, and also add a few funny asides – like “Take me for what I am”; response – “A control freak?”

Tapscott solos in the big Mama Rose song “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” (from “Gypsy”) and while he’s very strong, like the other solo, he seems to be straining in a key that is too high for him.

The show’s enthusiastic cast includes Abbie Carpenter and Jeremy Weinstein. Ashley Becher toward the end notes that while theater has looked a little different, “one thing we know – live theater and the arts must come back.” I’ll drink to that!

Thank you, Circa and your talented performers by giving us hope and distracting us over the past nine months, while we wait out this pandemic. I miss it all so much and can’t wait to be back in the theater. To reserve your link to the virtual shows (for a very affordable price), visit https://www.showtix4u.com/events/17497.

For more on plans for Circa’s 44th season this year (we hope!!), visit https://www.circa21.com/copy-of-mainstage-shows.

Want to check out some great photos of the productions? Here’s an exclusive look at some fantastic images from the shows:

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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.