cast members from Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Musical

Just a few performances in and I think it’s safe to say that the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse has a hit on its hands. Based on Jeff Kinney’s book series, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Musical, directed by Kimberly VanDerGinst, follows the tales of Greg Heffley, here adeptly performed by Jack Carslake, as he navigates the ups and downs of middle school. Young Greg often reflects on his escapades in his journal … and too bad his mom bought him one that says “diary” on it. How embarrassing!

I'll be honest: Though I’ve purchased a few, I haven’t read these books, so I brought my 5th-grader and Wimpy Kid expert along with me for a crash course as we ran through the program's character names. It occurred to me that this was the first time in recent memory that Circa '21 appealed to an older demographic with their under-21 offering, and judging from the extremely packed house on Saturday morning, they might be onto something. There’s a boatload of entertainment options for the littlest theatergoers. But older youths and tweens alike sure laughed a great deal and certainly seemed to enjoy themselves.

Here’s the thing: There isn’t anything at all inappropriate for littles in Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Musical. And with its excellent, upbeat dancing (via Andrea Moore’s superb choreography) and catchy tunes, even if the subject matter strays over a little one’s head, they’ll likely still be entertained. There was, however, clearly a strong fan following in Saturday's house of those who’ve actually read Kinney’s chapter books. Upper-elementary students and current middle-schoolers know when they’re being pandered to, and this production absolutely doesn’t pander.

Marlo Reed, Jack Carslake, and Arnav Mali in Diary of a Wimpy Kind: The Musical

This Diary of a Wimpy Kid tackles real issues such as being kind to friends, not feeling popular enough, and trying to make it through middle school – all set to some catchy tunes. There was also something nice about the fact the cast was primarily comprised of young actors and not adults playing kids. Because most of VanDerGinst's actors are closer to middle-school age than middle age, there seemed to be a real connection between the cast and their audience. All in all, the collective ensemble of 14 delivers a standout performance. There were a few diction issues, especially during some songs. But honestly, that’s still a pretty age-appropriate issue for those under 18 who don’t have professional diction coaches in their dressing room, so that was easily overlooked. The only ever-so-slightly disappointing part of this hindrance was that the lyrics by Michael Mahler and Alan Schmuckler are so dang clever I wanted to hear them, although overall, music director Bobby Becher (who also played Greg’s dad and a few teachers) did an exceptional job of readying the cast musically.

Meanwhile, I thoroughly enjoyed Becky Meissen’s set design of notebook-lined flats with a few black-and-white accoutrements employed as needed, a look completely reminiscent of Kinney’s stylized doodle-illustration style. (Because they’re journals, remember. Not diaries.) A round of applause to Bradley Robert Jensen’s costume design, as well, because he also nods to that doodle theme, especially in covering Greg’s family in black, white, and gray. (I loved that the costumes burst into life with lively colors as Greg left the comfort of home and met people he wasn’t related to.) The absolute highlight of the wardrobe, however, involved Joshie the European pop star and his backup dancer’s spacey costumes.

Ashley Becher, Fulton Young, Jack Carslake, Daniel Hauskins, and Bobby Becher in Diary of a Wimpy Kind: The Musical

Described as “like Kids Bop but twice as cool,” which made me chuckle, Joshie (Mark Young) is the famous musician hero to Greg’s friend Rowley (Marlo Reed). Rowley and Greg have a complicated friendship. What’s a kid to do when he’s trying to be popular but also linked with someone he thinks is uncool? Even when being talked down to by Greg, Reed remains a charmingly endearing actor committed to his chosen fandom. So when Joshie appears for his big number starring in Greg’s nightmare, he cemented his way into my very own “Animal Heart” with the lyric “My heart is full of love, and punctuality. I will arrive on time when you arrive with me.” Animal Heart is an actual musical-theatre bop, and I was so delighted when it ended up as a curtain-call reprise!

Other memorable musical moments include Carslake, Reed, and Arnay Mali (as the boys' other friend Chirag) throwing board-game money around during “All About the Mom Bucks,” as Greg’s mom uses fake money for her kid’s allowance. There’s also a fast-paced, full-cast, zombie-esque dance number, “The Cheese Touch,” that sets up the show's cootie situation. Don’t get The Cheese Touch or you’ll be a social pariah until you can pass it onto someone else … and it is that rotten piece of cheese that helps Greg realize the person he wants to be.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Musical is extremely entertaining while offering plenty of opportunities to start up conversations about friendship and other topics with the youth in your life. Circa '21's family production is truly topnotch, so get your tickets while you can. I suspect this one will sell out quickly.


Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Musical runs at the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (1828 Third Avenue, Rock Island IL) through May 18, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)786-7733 extension 2 and visiting

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