A sign in front of the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse includes a description of the theatre's current show, Southern Crossroads, as "an inspiring and hilarious story about one musical group's struggle against impossible odds, as they find new hope through music." That line fits Circa '21's production to a T, as the tone of director Curt Wollan's offering is clearly joyful, despite the sense of desperation in its setting. With the appropriate exceptions of those playing villains, Wollan's cast does not play up any silliness written into their comedic lines. Instead, they choose to play them straight, and in doing so, add to the musical's air of Great Depression uncertainty.
While Southern Crossroads has a plot, it's fairly incidental, as the core of the piece is a dramatized concert of classic, Depression-era songs, including "Keep on the Sunny Side," "Maple Leaf Rag," and "Tom Dooley." The numbers are part of an impromptu bluegrass concert by the Greene Family Singers, performed on the street in front of the theatre they were booked to play - one that closed just prior to their arrival. (Left without enough money to get to their next destination, the group hopes that their street concert will raise enough cash to pay for train tickets out of town.) There's also a romantic side story and financial complications that pit the family against the town's bank owner and his well-bred wife, but while the plot is serviceable, it's the music that really matters.
The actors portraying the Greene Family Singers play their own instruments - among them the string bass, the piano, the mandolin, and various guitars and percussive instruments - and they play them expertly. And judging by the energetic applause and whistles from Friday's audience, I'm not sure a plot was even necessary in Southern Crossroads, as those who attended the show seemed to enjoy the musical performances immensely, and for good reason. With their already-impressive technique and vocals, the cast put so much energy into their playing, and blended so well, that it felt as though this cast had been performing together for years. I mean it as high praise when I say that while I'm not particularly fond of the music's genre, I thoroughly enjoyed every note, predominantly because the actors perform the songs so gosh-darn well.
There is a little more to the show than music, though, and because Circa '21's production casts actors in the roles of musicians, there's an added bonus in watching them interpret playwright Warner Crocker's characters. But with Matthew Baldoni, Andrew Crowe, Cari Downing, Brad Hauskins, Steve Lasiter, Tristan Layne Tapscott, and Chad Willow all deserving of high praise, I do want to emphasize how enjoyable it is to watch Kimberly Furness and Rachelle Walljasper when they're not speaking. As Matilda, the wealthy wife of the local banker (played with amusing goofiness by Tom Walljasper), Furness oftentimes delivers these forceful, condescending "hmph"s, which register both verbally and physically - you can see the "hmph" in her face, which is partly why Furness' villainous portrayal is so delicious. In contrast, Rachelle Walljasper successfully gives her Shannon Greene a somewhat vacant but always sunny disposition, with her wide-eyed glances and not-a-worry-in-the-world dancing. She's particularly fun to watch when the family plays their first song, as Walljasper keeps looking around with a mixture of uncertainty and optimism in her eyes; her Shannon is clearly thinking this idea of a street concert is an iffy one, but remains hopeful that it'll draw a crowd.
Scenic designer Susie Holgersson's set, meanwhile, is just as impressive as the performances. She has created a theatre exterior that's obviously run-down, yet filled with texture and impressive Depression-era design; there's exposed brick peeking through the broken stucco finish, performance posters, a hodgepodge of junk strewn about, and even an ornate tin ceiling under the awning. The entire set was just as stunning from my seat at the back of the theatre as it was at the edge of the stage (I took a good, long look while in the buffet line), and it added to the joy of Friday's performance, which ended with the audience on its feet, and one of the actors suggesting their performance of one more song. Our audience eagerly gave consent, likely because Southern Crossroads was so good that none of us was quite ready for this fantastic production to end.
Southern Crossroads plays at the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (1828 Third Avenue, Rock Island) through April 14. For information and tickets, call (309)786-7733, extension 2, or visit Circa21.com.