Route 66

Kenton Fridley and Erin Churchill in "Route 66," opening Friday at Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, Rock Island.


As far as Dennis Hitchcock is concerned, Route 66 is uncharted territory.

The founding owner-producer of Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse is wrapping up the venue's 38th season by directing "Route 66," a new musical that has been produced only a few times.

"It's more fun when there are no roads to follow, no pun intended," said Hitchcock, whose last directing job also was a premiere, the musical "Whodunit?" in 2010.

"Route 66" was presented originally by a university theater in Maine in 2007 and presented professionally at a theater in New York state in 2013 and a theater in Connecticut last summer.

Script co-writer Jerold Goldstein and composer Fred Stark are both working with Hitchcock and the Circa cast this week. Hitchcock has been in contact with Stark through many years, making suggestions to improve the show.

The version onstage at Circa, from Friday night through Nov. 7, comes with more revisions and even new, small changes suggested by the creators.

"That's all part of the fun, to be working with them while they're making the changes," Hitchcock said.

Goldstein, for example, suggested adding three words to a line after a preview performance, and Hitchcock said it was a definite improvement.

"We can do that, because he was sitting here and could see if that worked," Hitchcock said.

Another benefit of a new performance, Hitchcock said, is that he doesn't hear about what was done by previous actors and directors from earlier productions — by both performers and audience members.

Among those performers is newcomer Kenton Fridley, a West Virginia native who plays the lead role of a magazine photographer documenting life on the legendary Route 66.

"It's like an actor's dream to originate something, because there aren't a lot of parameters that you have to stay in that the first guy did," said Fridley, 37. "Maybe I'm creating the parameters for the next guy. That's part of the craft that we like as actors."

Fridley plays opposite Circa veteran Erin Churchill, who plays a neurotic Chicago writer assigned to collaborate with the photographer.

The musical plays out episodically, Hitchcock said, with Fridley and Churchill the only performers in the 10-member cast with only one role.

Tom Walljasper, a Circa mainstay who is in the cast, called "Route 66" a "chick flick," and Hitchcock said that the show's composers wholeheartedly agreed.

The music, directed by Ron May, is all original, which means no version of the classic song that was a hit for Nat King Cole and recorded by dozens of other acts.

Hitchcock said the score has a variety of songs, some played by Fridley's character simply strumming the guitar.

The musical takes place "last summer," said Hitchcock, who thinks the show has legs beyond its run in Rock Island and has contacted about 20 other producers to inform them of its possibilities.

Hitchcock said it's more gratifying to tread new ground on a show than it is to produce a classic.

"We may be able to put a new twist on it," he said, "but with this, our twist is the twist."