Ten Best Plays of the 2008-2009 Season in Iowa

Normally, I just compile a list of the ten best plays of a certain year in Iowa. This year, due to the fact that I only reviewed plays in the first half of 2009, I have decided to list the ten best plays of the 2008-2009 season in Iowa. Any play that I attended that opened in the state of Iowa from August 1, 2008 through today qualified for this list, regardless of if it was a professional tour, a high school production or a community theater production.

1). Fences“–Theatre Cedar Rapids

Leslie Charipar’s brilliant production of August Wilson’s wonderfully written play featured stunning performances from all seven of the actors, the most notable performance from Vershawn Young as the brain-damaged Gabe, who probably gave the greatest performance of the season. The play was thoroughly engrossing and dealt with the issue of race in the 1950s without being preachy. In addition, Bret Gothe’s set was simple, yet effective and contained a spectral like tree on stage. I’m also pretty sure I stopped breathing during the last minute-and-a-half of the show because of what occurs in that portion of time. This production was so riveting that I had to force myself to look down at my notepad and take notes for my review.

2). Gypsy“–Theatre Cedar Rapids

This production of the classic Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim, Julie Styne musical about Gypsy Rose Lee and her controlling mother had a powerful performance from Jan McCool as Mama Rose, the end-all-be-all of stage mothers. Katie Knutson and Brian Anderson gave emotional performances as Louise and Herbie. Leslie Charipar’s production, which was performed in the McKinley Middle School auditorium, utilized the space very well, placing the orchestra musicians onstage and using simple panels that actors flipped around to signify the setting of a scene.

3). Kiss Me, Kate“–Cedar Falls Community Theatre

Liane Nichols direction of this delightful musical by Cole Porter and Sam and Bella Spewack’s was so utterly charming and fun that it made me smile through the entire show at both performances I attended. With an incredibly talented cast that had superb voices, the entire show was filled with energy and excitement. Brian McCarty and Kristin Teig Torres as Fred and Lilli not only sang with such beauty, but there was also so much emotion in their performances that before anything was explicitly said, I could tell that the two weren’t over each other. The performances from Greg Holt, Duane McDonald and Rhiannon Talbot as Flex, Duey and Lois Lane, respectively, were comedic, but authentic. Tim King’s set design was complex in order to show the behind the scenes occurrences, but also the set for the show-within-the-show.

4). The Velveteen Rabbit“–Black Hawk Children’s Theatre

Tyler Hayes Stilwill’s direction of this show gave the show a depth that made it more than just a story about a boy who loved his toy rabbit very much. The rabbit (Zoey Thune) was a friend to Steve (Cain Hendrickson as the younger version, Stilwill as the older version); a companion, someone there for him when he was sick. And while the rabbit received scorn from the battery operated toys (Logan Hewitt as the train and Maya Buchanan as the steamboat), the rocking horse (Luke Everhardt) spoke of a magic fueled by the love of the owner, which makes all toys real. The show was also filled with a magic that made it very real and very moving, from the casual way that Stilwill addressed the audience to the nuanced facial expressions that Thune utilized, giving a performance that at the end of the show moved me to tears. Geoff Ehrendreich’s set design, Brad Brist’s lighting design and Danielle Warnke’s costume design gave the show an almost pop-up book feel as the lights would come up and reveal a part of the stage previously hidden, or the bed that Steve had would have a bedpost moved and a lid opened to create a sailboat.

5). The Princess Who Wouldn’t Wear Pink“–Brucemore’s Outdoor Children’s Theatre

This show probably was the biggest surprise of the season, but I think that this show was probably the play that was the most fun that I attend. The show had rather delightful, colorful costumes and a simple but effective set. Director Joe Link’s script had a positive message for children about being true to yourself and that it is okay to not fit the mold for what is normal, but the message got through without being preachy and hard to stomach. The entire cast gave magnificent performances, notably from Jennie Kies as the feisty Princess Rose, Nathan Nelson as the sardonic omniscient narrator and Katie Knutson as a dimwitted, hard on the ears Rapunzel. I also don’t think that a lot of the sight aspects of this show, notably of a dwarf being shot into the air, will escape my memory for quite some time.

6). “Anne of Green Gables“–Black Hawk Children’s Theatre

Tyler Hayes Stilwill’s direction of this stage adaptation of L.M. Montgomery’s novel “Anne of Green Gables” is evidence of this. Emma Rathe’s performance as Anne Shirley, the imaginative, melodramatic redheaded orphan was filled with such vibrant warmth and energy that it almost lit up the theater to the point that you forgot about how cold it was outside. She also didn’t seem to have very red hair, but she convinced me that she had red hair. The performances from Kent Guild and Fran Guild as Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert and Grace Grubbard as Diana Barry were also excellent due to the very gradual change you could see in the characters over the course of the play because of the characters having Anne in their lives. Geoff Ehrendreich’s set design, Brad Brist’s lighting design and Danielle Warnke’s costume design all had very minimalist elements to it, although Ehrendreich’s set was a bit more abstract with the use of several white boards covering up the set and white windows hanging off of set pieces on the sides of the stage. But the design elements gave the show a very natural feel that enabled the show to be the main focus.

7). “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”–Gallagher-Bluedorn Performing Arts Center

This touring production of John Doyle’s minimalist production was very good, partially because of how the production is done, with the actors playing the instruments onstage and there being a small set. This allowed the creepy psychological aspect of Stephen Sondheim’s score and Hugh Wheeler’s book to really sink in. The actors with this touring company were also very good and weren’t trying to imitate the actors from the Broadway revival. Which is good, because no one can be Patti LuPone but Patti LuPone. But anyway, the show got under my skin, which tends to be a great feeling.

8). “The Rocky Horror Show”–Theatre Cedar Rapids

The 2008 production of the musical that was the basis for the cult film had a different director, cast and was in a different venue than the 2007 production at Theatre Cedar Rapids. But this production was more focused, which could be because it was performed at Theatre Cedar Rapids’ Lindale location. This production had a great cast and the actors made the characters their own creations, they didn’t seem to be trying to replicate the performances in the film. The actor that played the narrator also made comments about Joe Biden being hot, which you definitely wouldn’t hear anywhere else. The only problem at the performance I went to was that in the number “Hot Patootie,” the lyrics were muddled, which could have been a problem with the sound.

9). “Enchanted April“–Cedar Falls Community Theatre

While the script for “Enchanted April” is a bit meh, the cast of George Glenn’s production elevated the show to a delightful night of theater. As the women at the center of the play tried to brighten their humdrum London lives, I found myself interested in the problems the characters were experiencing, which was likely the result of strong performances from the two leads, Diane Maxwell and Susan Brown-Wadleigh. In addition to that, Rick Maxwell’s lighting design was simple, effective, and rather lovely to look at during a very long scene change.

10). Bell, Book, and Candle“–Waterloo Community Playhouse

Charles Stilwill’s direction of John Van Druten’s romantic comedy about a witch in Manhattan, her family, and a spell she casts to get revenge on an old college enemy was fun, whimsical, and had an extremely strong cast. John Molseed’s performance as the snide, cunning, tacky blazer wearing Nicky Holroyd was the most delightful performance of the year, along with Beverly McCusker’s performance as Aunt Queenie, whom costume designer Katrina Sandvik dressed in flowing black and gray clothes. Geoff Ehrendreich’s set accurately portrayed a living room in an old house in Manhattan. My only qualm with the show is that the second act dragged quite a bit. However, the actors were very tight with their lines and their actions, so it does not seem to be the fault of Stilwill’s direction or the actor’s performances, but more of a problem with Van Druten’s script.

Light Posting…Again

Posting here at “Fragments” will be light for the next few days. I’ve started writing a novella as a way to channel my emotions at the moment.

I intend to see “Luv” at the Oster Regent this Friday, so you can expect a review Friday night or Saturday morning. And then on Saturday afternoon, there will be my list of the top ten plays done in Iowa for the year 2009 and the 2008-2009 season.

So, About the Whole Actors-Are-Not-Their-Characters Thing…

I’ve decided I would give readers a bit of a break from my lengthy posts with a lighter post.

On Wednesday, I attended the play “The Princess Who Wouldn’t Wear Pink” at Brucemore. My dear mother accompanied me to the play, as she frequently does. (I happen to enjoy attending plays with either of my parents due to their interest and love for the arts.)

As we were pulling up the drive, we both noticed that Jim Kern, the executive director of Brucemore, was directing traffic. Kern also played Roy Cohn in Theatre Cedar Rapids’ production of “Angels in America,” which my mother and I also saw. I didn’t think much of the fact that he was directing traffic, but my mother said, “Oh my god, it’s Roy Cohn!”

Thirty minutes later, Kern walked onstage to give the curtain speech. The show, which was done by the outdoor children’s theater, had several young children in the audience and it actually seemed as though the children outnumbered the adults.

My mother turned to me and said, “Oh no, Roy Cohn is going to speak to the children!” For those of you familiar with Tony Kushner’s play, I am pleased to report that Kern didn’t say any vile things like Cohn does in the play.

The remark did make me burst out into laughter during the curtain speech. Luckily for me, it was the curtain speech. This is not the first time my mother has said something to me during a show that has caused me to laugh. The most memorable instance was at “The Drowsy Chaperone,” when, after Man in Chair said that he hates theater and finds it depressing (the stage and the theater is completely dark when he says this, by the way), my mother turned to me and whispered in my ear, “Is this Charles Isherwood?”

What Some Parents Will Do For Their Child’s Education

Believe it or not, this post is not related to the Chicago Public Schools launching an investigation into the possible ways some children got in to the very selective magnet schools.

This is related to a story that involves a school that is in the area I live in.

The University of Northern Iowa was, at one point, the Iowa State Teacher’s College. The university maintains a well known and well regarded College of Education to this day. The university also happens to operate the only laboratory school in the state. This school, Malcom Price Laboratory School/Northern University High, is run in conjunction with the College of Education and, as a result, several students in the College of Education do some form of training at Price Lab.

The school is also noted for having a different curriculum than the Cedar Falls Community School District, smaller classes than the Cedar Falls Community School District, a better basketball team than Cedar Falls High School and an incredible ability to make decisions that are somewhat logical. Price Lab is one of three private schools in the city of Cedar Falls, the other two are St. Patrick’s Catholic School, which is K-8, and Valley Lutheran, which is 6-12. In the overall Waterloo-Cedar Falls area, there are eight private schools, the other five are Immanuel Lutheran, Columbus Catholic High School, Sacred Heart School, St. Edward’s School and Blessed Sacrament School. What tends to set Price Lab apart from the other private schools is that it is not affiliated with a Christian denomination and the teachers there tend to have completed more of a college education than the average John Teacher at a Cedar Falls Community School. In fact, of the 33 teachers, 23 have their masters degrees and three hold doctorates. The rest hold bachelors degrees. My mother also knows for a fact that two of the science teachers at that school hold doctorates. Also, according to Price Lab’s website, 25.8% of their students come from cultural and ethnic minority backgrounds. As stated in the Progress Report from the Cedar Falls Community School District, “Other than white, the only reportable ethnic subgroup for grades 7th, 8th, and 11th grades was African American students.” This is in reference to proficiency, but that sentence kills me every time. (If you read the progress report, you’ll see that there are less than 50 students from ethnic minority groups in each of the grades that were tested.)

But, anyway, Price Lab is a school that parents probably want to send their kids to.

Last week, the Des Moines Register reported that about a dozen parents falsified their addresses in order to receive a lower tuition rate for their children. Price Lab’s tuition system works in such a manner that if you live inside the attendance zone, you pay $566 for tuition. If you live outside the attendance zone, you pay $5768 in tuition.

Among the individuals listed in this audit is Representative Kerry Burt of Waterloo, who was also arrested for drunken driving in February.

Rep. Kerry Burt has been connected to this investigation and has been asked to resign by Republicans. Although I don’t blame him for lying about his address because NU seems to be a very good school. Even though several people do this in Cedar Falls to get their kids into certain schools, that doesn’t mean it’s okay. This is a very corrupt thing that Rep. Burt committed and I think he will probably be removed from office.

Audit: Officials, other parents shortened school on tuition” [Des Moines Register]
BHC GOP asks local Dems to demand Burt’s resignation” [Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier]

“The Princess Who Wouldn’t Wear Pink” at Brucemore

“The Princess Who Wouldn’t Wear Pink,” a new play by Joe Link, is probably fun for children. The play, which follows the journey of Princess Rose (Jennie Kies), who is on the way to a ball to surprise her father (Bryan Schlotfelt). The play incorporates audience participation to aid in Princess Rose’s assistance of various fairy tale and nursery rhyme characters. The show is also only an hour long and very entertaining.

“The Princess Who Wouldn’t Wear Pink” is also quite a bit of fun for the adults. How the play portrays some characters is very fresh and news. For example, Rapunzel (Katie Knutson) is portrayed as being someone who sings all day, but really shouldn’t sing. Princess Rose is not a stereotypical princess, finding books and tools to be more interesting than her hair, which is ridiculed by the Narrator (Nathan Nelson). Instead of wearing a pink poofy dress, she wears a cross between overalls and a dress. But both her father and her mother (Mary E. Bardsley Vizecky) are fine with this and her interests help her in aiding those she encounters on her trip to the Castle Effadore.

The show features the message of being true to yourself. But while such a message would seem preachy with other shows, it sticks in the back of your mind with “The Princess Who Wouldn’t Wear Pink.” The show is so much fun, it avoids being preachy. There are some cleaver exchanges between Princess Rose and the omniscient narrator, sight gags of a dwarf being shot into the air, and delightful rhyming and wordplay, in addition to some lovely costumes. And what could be a better protagonist for a children’s play than a princess who loves geometry and math?

The performances, however, truly make the show enjoyable for the adults in the audience. All of the actors give excellent performances that aren’t campy and over-the-top. Even poor Humpty Dumpty (Rob Merritt), who panics and has a very short memory span, seems realistic; not like some cartoon character. The show is such a delight to watch that even someone who has an aversion to audience participation will probably find themselves giving directions to the characters. I say that because I find audience participation to be disdainful due to the fact that it tends to detract from the actual play. But somehow, the actors and Link found a way to make it work for this show. In addition, the use of the lawn where the show is performed is quite ingenious. For example, the show begins with the narrator describing, albeit inaccurately, Princess Rose as a stereotypical princess. Behold, there’s Rose, sitting in a tree that’s in the back of the seating area.

The show is truly an escape from the present problems and unless you break out into hives when surrounded by hoards of children, there is no reason why you should go to Brucemore for this show, which runs until Saturday with performances at 5:30 and 7:30 p.m.. On top of that, tickets are $5 for adults and $3 for children. Isn’t that quite a deal?

My Mother and Sister Explain “High School Musical”

For those of you wondering why I haven’t reviewed the Waterloo Community Playhouse’s production of “High School Musical,”, I recused myself because my mother and sister are stagehands for the production.

But I did see the show, and as a result of seeing that play, I decided to discuss with my mother the casting of an actress to play a cheerleader.

“She looks like she’s one of those little girls that dresses up in a cheerleader costume for Halloween,” I said. “She doesn’t even look old enough to be in middle school.”

“Maybe she’s the squad’s mascot; the little sister of a squad member,” my mother suggested. “You’ll find that at a lot of schools.”

Suddenly, this made sense. Over the past year, I’ve discovered that if you put enough thought into why there’s a casting decision made, you’ll find a reason. On that same note, you could figure out that teenage girls are really bad at playing old women and therefore, high schools should stop doing “Arsenic and Old Lace.”
In the stage version of “High School Musical,” a scene is set in detention with the acting teacher. The teacher has the students that are serving detention do some acting exercises. One of those exercises is called “ball of noise.” The students pass around an invisible ball and make a noise. When the protagonist, Troy, receives the ball, he dribbles a basketball and shoots it. The ball then comes back and starts to crush him, but then the other students “save him.”

My sister, who gets to sit up in the ceiling every night, figured out that the “ball of noise” is a metaphor. She figured out that him being crushed by this basketball represents the pressure he feels from his father and the team to do basketball and do well in basketball. However, everyone eventually saves him from that fate of being “crushed” under the pressure.

See, I’m not the only person who reads deeply into plays.

Does This Mean I Might Not Be Able To See “Blackbird”?

Victory Gardens’ production of “Blackbird” is apparently a hit. Tickets are selling quickly! Chris Jones has stopped talking about Broadway for 24-hours to discuss this! According to Jones, the ticket demand was so large, the phone system for the Biograph’s box office blew out.

The Victory Gardens’ management also decided to raise the ticket price by $10 for the extension. Which is a decision I find to be very odd.

However, if people really want to see this play, which it seems like they do, they’re probably going to pay $68 for the extension.

I’m just sad because I’ll be in Chicago during the final days of the play and I’m not sure if I will be able to see it. And I already thought “Blackbird” is a very well written play.

Michael Riedel Doesn’t Have Any Answers, But He Has Some Ideas


(You have no idea how long I have waited to use that picture.)

Tuesday, Matt Windman wrote on amNY’s website, “And Michael Riedel, if you’re reading this, get to work and figure out what the fuck happened.” Well, Riedel’s column doesn’t tell us really tell us what happened.

He does dismiss the “conflict of interest” explanation that the Tony Award management has given. The comp ticket theory isn’t really debunked. He writes,

Producers have long balked at having to shell out so many free tickets at Tony time. Eight hundred pairs of orchestra comps have a street value of about $225,000. Thin the voting ranks, and you save some money.

Besides, the press already gets freebies when the show opens. Why give them more?

And there are a lot of schnorrers on the press list.

“You wouldn’t believe how fast they have their hands out for their Tony tickets — and many of them want three or four tickets,” a publicist says.

At least this quote is suggesting that the cost issue is a very possible reason. He also writes that there are some members of the press list that only go to the major shows, but a lot of people that aren’t on the press list only go to the major shows.

After discussing these possible reasons for the dismissal, Riedel wrote this,

But in the end, the Tonys are run by and for the commercial theater. They’re marketing tools, and any hue and cry about “integrity” is beside the point. If the producers don’t want journalists around, well, it’s their party.

Which is not to say the press shouldn’t take its revenge.

I’m all for a down and dirty fight. Broadway’s a lot more fun to write about when there’s acrimony in the air.

First of all, I think anyone who reads Michael Riedel’s column somewhat regularly knows that he likes a down and dirty fight. It’s something to dish about. I can also, sadly, say that his column is much more interesting “when there’s acrimony in the air.”

So how should the critics fight back? Well, Riedel has four suggestions.

One is to not see the show at the press preview or on opening night. His reasoning is that a show might have several weeks of previews, but the producers still charge full price. What if the critics wait a couple of weeks, see the show and then file their review? Personally, I’m not so sure about this because there might be some artistically brilliant show that could suffer if there aren’t reviews hailing it. The big movie adaptions wouldn’t suffer because of a recognizable name if this happened. Yes, it’d be a great way to get revenge on the producers, but think of the artistically worthy plays that would suffer.

His second suggestion is to ignore the “crass commercial shows.” By this he means “9 to 5,” “Shrek,” “Legally Blond,” and, next season, “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.” This is something that I’m not as questioning of, but the producers for those shows probably don’t even care if critics like their shows. Those shows, again, sell by name recognition. Joe Schmo from Waverly, Iowa probably doesn’t care if Elisabeth Vincentelli thought the performances were stunning.

The third suggestion is for the press to ignore the Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing. I really don’t have any comment on this because I don’t think I have the place to discuss this.

The fourth suggestion is for the Drama Critics Circle Awards to be beefed up. This is because those awards recognize the shows that the critics that are members of the organization feel are the best shows of the season. I would like to see the Drama Desk Awards to get a better coverage and to see a better awareness of the Drama Critics Circle Awards. The Drama Desk Awards because it honors off-Broadway and Broadway productions, as does the Drama Critics Circle Awards. The Tony Awards only recognize the shows on Broadway and, as a result, ignore some great off-Broadway productions.

I think Michael Riedel might be trying to incite a revolution against the producers, or at least a firm reestablishing of the critics’ power in the theater.

A reestablishing of the power is what he seems to imply in the final sentences of his column:

It [the theatre press] still has platforms, it still has power.

It can put its boot on Broadway’s neck and break it.

Ladies and gentlemen, I think that this is the major topic in theater that will keep evolving as time goes on.


Waterloo Community Playhouse Goes Viral?

My mother called my attention to this video today. The husband of the costume designer at the Waterloo Community Playhouse has put together a promo for their current production of “High School Musical,” which I’ve decided, at the last minute, to not review.

I hope that this might help the theater sell tickets due to the financial difficulties they had because not a lot of people saw the masterful “Into the Woods.” After all, theater is a business where art is sometimes shmart. And this is much better than Barbara Lounsberry’s poorly fact-checked rave of “High School Musical.”