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Dinner and a show


Courtesy Circa 21 Dinner Playhouse

Circa 21 Dinner Playhouse
Rock Island, Illinois
Circa 21 Dinner Playhouse takes its name from its historic theater building, which has been a fixture in Rock Hill, Illinois, for more than 90 years.

“The neat thing about our dinner theater is that we’re in an original 1920s vaudeville theater and silent-movie house,” said Brett Hitchcock, director of audience development at Circa 21. “It opened around 1921 and served as a movie theater up until 1975, when our owners bought and converted it. So this building has a lot of history in this market.”

These days, cabaret acts and black-and-white movies have been replaced by Broadway musicals and comedic plays. The company puts on five to seven productions every year, including both Broadway standards and some newer works that audiences may not have seen before. But the feeling of the old theater remains in much of the auditorium’s ambiance and decorations.

“The interior of the building really brings out its historic nature,” Hitchcock said. “Our ceiling is about 80 feet high. This is the area where the Indian chief Blackhawk became famous, and we have three huge heads of Blackhawk carved up over the proscenium. There’s so much design in this building, and that’s where the history comes out.”

When groups arrive, a greeter meets them on the motorcoach and shares some of the building’s history. From there, they go in and start their plated lunch or buffet dinner. After that, the show starts; it features both actors cast from New York and some talented local performers.

The playhouse’s 2013 season will include “Menopause: The Musical,” the fourth installment of “Church Basement Ladies,” “Hank Williams’ Lost Highway” and a new show called “Things My Mother Taught Me.”

Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre

Nashville, Tennessee
Nashville is famous for its pool of creative talent, which gives the leaders of Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre great opportunities to find gifted cast members and writers.

“We do a lot of Broadway standards, and we do some original work as well,” said Vanessa Wynn, the theater’s group sales director. “We’re lucky to have a lot of gifted writers in this area. We have a lot of actors that have been working here for some time and a lot of writers that have worked here as actors and actresses. Our owner also writes — his specialty is mysteries.”

With so much talent, the company endeavors to mount two or three original productions every year. The 2012 season opened with an original comedy called “Modern Love,” which won great reviews locally. Each season features 10 to 12 shows; other productions this year have included “Here Lies Jeremy Troy,” “The Dixie Swim Club” and an original take on the classic story of Count Dracula.

Whatever the production, visitors can expect to find high-caliber performances.

“We bring some actors in from out of town, but this is a very artsy area,” Wynn said. “It’s more than country music. There’s a large performing arts community here, so all of the cast members are professional actors.”

The main stage at Chaffin’s Barn is a theater in the round that seats 296 people. The company also has a second stage, called the Backstage, which seats 60 to 70 guests. On this stage, visitors will find smaller, more experimental productions, as well as a series of murder-mystery shows produced by a partner company.

New Theatre Restaurant
Overland Park, Kansas
The owners of New Theatre Restaurant have a history of more than 40 years of putting on theatrical productions in and around Kansas City. These days, the shows at their dinner theaters attract special attention for the high-profile stars that join their casts.

“Most of our shows have a guest star that was a former television star,” said group sales manager Julie Bishop. “For our upcoming season, we have Barbara Eden, Marion Ross, Mike Farrell and Cindy Williams. Gregory Harrison has been here before, and right now we have Richard Karn from ‘Home Improvement.’”

These television stars take the lead roles in productions, alongside casts of actors cast from Chicago, New York and the Kansas City area. New Theatre’s next season starts August 29 when Barbara Eden from “I Dream of Jeanie” stars in the stage comedy “Social Insecurity.” “Happy Days” star Marion Ross will take part in a show called “The Game Is Afoot,” and Mike Farrell of “MASH” fame will star in “On Golden Pond.” The musical for next summer will be “The Buddy Holly Story.”

Groups that go to the theater can choose from several special experiences to enhance their visit, among them a private cocktail party before the show that Bishop said is popular with bank groups.

After the private party, groups head to a gourmet buffet before settling in for the performance.

“It’s not your typical buffet food,” Bishop said. “For our current show, we have fresh asparagus, spring pasta, polenta, pork brisket and tilapia.”