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On opening night of Circa ‘21 Dinner Playhouse’s run of “Elf: The Musical,” Alissa Hansel sat in the audience and cried.

And as Hansel pointed out, “Elf” is not a sad show.

The tears arrived after seeing her 10-year-old daughter Lily on stage.

“Just to see your kid up there,” she said. “I mean Circa ‘21 is the real deal. I’m proud of her.”

Lily, a fifth grader at Hopewell Elementary School, is one of 10 kids cast in “Elf,” which runs through Dec. 30. It’s the area premiere of the musical, based on the 2003 movie starring Will Ferrell.

Other parents, such as Troy Stierwalt, can relate to her reaction. Stierwalt’s daughter, Macy, who is in sixth grade at Bettendorf Middle School, also appears in “Elf: The Musical.”

“The second she comes out on stage, it’s exciting,” he said. “You can tell she’s having a good time. She likes to be in the spotlight.”

Circa ‘21 puts on a couple of shows per year where kids are part of the cast, including the next show on the schedule, “Freaky Friday.” For “Elf,” the kids were broken into two casts that each will perform 20 of the 40 total shows.

“The kids add a lot to the show,” Brett Hitchcock, the theater’s director of audience development, said. “It’s a wonderful experience for them to be able to come into a professional environment and work with professional actors.”

Since this the show’s first run in the market, Hitchcock said there was a lot of interest during the audition process a few months back.

Another reason for the excitement?

When it comes to holiday movies,“Elf” is one of the newer ones that already is considered a Christmas classic.

“This is not one of those movies from 40 or 50 years ago,” Hitchcock said. “For the younger generation of kids who grew up with it, this is their ‘White Christmas.’”

Alissa Hansel and her daughter are fans of the Christmastime staple and were happy that several popular scenes and quotes from the movie appear in the on-stage version.

“We have watched it over and over,” Alissa Hansel said. “It’s hilarious.”

For the kids, taking part in a Circa show has serious moments, Hitchcock said. 

“Doing this is a huge sacrifice for the family with as many as performances we do,” he said.

Because of the rehearsal and performance schedule, the kids have to miss a few school days and extra-curricular activities. On Halloween, for example, Macy had to cut trick-or-treating short to make a rehearsal.

“It’s a little tiring for an 11-year-old,” Troy Stierwalt said. “But she’s enjoying every second of it. She hasn’t complained once.”

For the most part, being in “Elf” is a chance for kids such as Lily and Macy to follow their passions.

In April, Macy played the role of Chip in Bettendorf High School’s production of “Beauty and the Beast,” where “she immediately fell in love with the theater environment,” her father said.

“She’s been bitten by the bug,” Stierwalt said. “I guarantee you this won’t be her last time on stage.”

As for Lily, she takes classes at Center Stage Performing Arts Academy, attended Spartan Summer Theatre held at Pleasant Valley High School and was selected to be part of the state-wide Opus Honor Choir.

“She has had a joy for singing and acting for years,” her mother, Alissa Hansel said. “With something like this, you have to have perseverance and dedication and a work ethic. And she just does it like it’s easy.”


Amanda Hancock is a reporter covering food, arts and entertainment in the Quad-Cities (and beyond).