Posted Online: Nov. 09, 2012, 9:14 pm

Circa's Santa spans opera and musicals

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By Jonathan Turner

Photo: Submitted
John Payonk (as Kris Kringle) and Laila Haley (as Susan Walker) star in Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's new production of the holiday musical 'Miracle on 34th Street.'
Even without makeup and costume, the jolly John Payonk looks and sounds a lot like Santa Claus.

The imposing 51-year-old has white hair and a beard; a portly frame; a deep baritone voice; and an infectious, hearty laugh. While Mr. Payonk has done the Santa gig many times at malls, his appearance in the holiday musical "Miracle on 34th Street" at Rock Island's Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse will mark the first time he's played Kris Kringle on stage.

"It's great because kids come up to you with pure, unconditional love" when you're playing Santa, he said. "It's like, 'Wow, I feel like somebody.'"

"It's a charming show. You can't go wrong with Santa," Mr. Payonk said. "It's very touching, and the characters around him are large characters.I've just always been one of those crazy Santa Claus believers. It's that unconditional love, I guess."

"The kids look at you, and you are Santa Claus to them. I am so looking forward to that," he said. "That's what it's about — the kids."

Based on the classic 1947 film, "Miracle" originally was called "Here's Love." It was written in 1963 by Meredith Willson, the Iowa native who penned "The Music Man." Its most famous song is "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas," which was first written in 1951 and appears in the musical with "Pinecones and Holly Berries."

A native of northwest Indiana, where he still lives, Mr. Payonk hasappeared in more than 100 roles in operas, operettas and musical-theater productions throughout the U.S and abroad during his nearly three decades on the stage. He's sung such varied roles as Germont in "La Traviata," Scarpia in "Tosca," Tonio and Canio in "I Pagliacci," Sharpless in "Madama Butterfly,"Tony in "The Most Happy Fella," Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof," Old Deuteronomy in "Cats," and Captain Smith in "Titanic."

He first made an impression at the Rock Island dinner theater 20 years ago in "Phantom" (the Yeston-Kopit version), playing the Phantom's father. In recent years at Circa, Mr. Payonk has been Mr. Potter in "It's a Wonderful Life,"Edna Turnblad in "Hairspray," and Professor Callahan in "Legally Blonde: The Musical."

"This also opened up the acting. It's more of a challenge," he said of musicals. "It's something different every time I come here. It challenges you.Edna was so much fun; it was so much work. My favorite role is ... I love doing Tony in 'The Most Happy Fella,' which is kind of more operatic, but he runs the total gamut."

Compared to the traditional theater or concert stage,dinner theater is "a whole different animal," Mr. Payonk said. "Luckily, they're not eating while we're performing. It's just more homey; there's more of a connection to the audience. When you come back to places like Circa, people remember you. It's like a family.

"The customers — we came to 'Smokey Joe's' the other night, and they come up to you, 'Welcome back!' It's just great," he said. "That's why you keep coming back.

"Plus, they use some of the local folks. The kids in this show are great. The girl who plays Susan (Laila Haley), from the first rehearsal, she just blows you away. It's like, 'Where did you get her?' You could go to New York and not find someone as good as this kid is."

Mr. Payonk said he remembers watching the legendary tenor Mario Lanza in the movie "The Great Caruso" when he was a kid. The first record he checked out at the library was "Pagliacci" (sung by Mr. Lanza), and "that's what got me hooked," he said.

For college, Mr. Payonk went to Ball State University for six months, and coached opera at Indiana University. But, he said, "College wasn't for me. They were pushing theory and composition, and I wanted to sing." Singing with small opera companies in Chicago, he got "on-the-job training."

"I tell these kids nowadays, you should have classical training," Mr. Payonk said. "To get through eight shows a week, you have to have that basic technique. Today, they rely on the microphone so much."

"Opera is real work, real concentration, and musical theater is a lot more fun," he said. "It's two different things. I enjoy both. In theater, I'm expanding my horizons, as an actor, to be more versatile."

His performance of Tevye in the Light Opera Works production of "Fiddler" at Evanston, Ill., earned Mr. Payonk the After Dark Award for Outstanding Performance in a Lead Role. Of his performance, Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune wrote: "Payonk's Tevye is superbly sung, richly textured and highly satisfying."

Never quite sure of his next gig, the burly, friendly baritone took time to dream. Mr. Payonk said he "would kill" to do Papa Charlie in "Shenandoah" (1974) and the baker Amiable in Stephen Schwartz's "The Baker's Wife" (1976). Those would be Christmas miracles for audiences as well.

If you go

-- What: "Miracle on 34th Street."
-- When: Through Dec. 30; 7:45 p.m. Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays (buffet dinner served from 6 to 7 p.m.); 5:45 p.m. Sundays (buffet dinner served 4 to 5 p.m.); and 1:30 p.m. Wednesdays (plated lunch served 11:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m.).
-- Where: Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island.
-- Tickets: $48.07 for evening productions and $42.32 for matinees, with reduced prices for students, seniors, and groups of 12 or more. Call (309) 786-7733, ext. 2, or go to