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.