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Center Stage

Intense, intimate and jazzy


1The city’s most intense musical theater last year took place practically in audience members’ laps. The audience sat eye-level with the players as they wove through the jazz club Noce, putting across “Murder Ballad” with lust and violence. Rarely has “dinner theater” felt so edgy.

“The space is so intimate,” say Bob Filippone, Noce’s owner. “Des Moines has spoiled us, giving us all this great theater right in your face.”

When Filippone set up Noce, his team included the savvy set designer Tim Wisgerhof (since moved to Florida). They believed the city needed a jazz club, but they also had theater in mind.

“We saw that, other than the Playhouse, there wasn’t much opportunity for musical theater, locally. We were hoping to create a kind of hangout for both musicians and theater folks.”

The first year, however, theater proved difficult to arrange. Most musical acts require booking far in advance, so for Filippone, “scheduling was the biggest hurdle.” Noce only mounted two dramatic pieces, one in the club’s back room.

Prep Iowa

This year, however, Filippone and others have set up a slate of four shows. Three, like “Ballad,” are small-cast musicals for the front of the club, with live music. One of those, “The Last Five Years,” will bring back Des Moines favorites Max Wellman and Katy Merriman (now married, they’ve relocated to Chicago). But there’s no song and dance in the season opener, Larry Kramer’s AIDS drama, “The Normal Heart,” which will play in the back with a sparse set.

David VanCleave, the director, admires the work’s seriousness. “Nobody planned to open on Inauguration Day,” he says. “But that’s so appropriate. This is a story about protest, about getting politicians to listen.”

2“Normal Heart” dramatizes the first years of the AIDS crisis, when young people were dying, but authorities denied that any problem existed — or indeed that homosexuals existed. In frustration, playwright Kramer and others took to the streets, as does the play’s hero, Ned Weeks. First produced in 1985 when the crisis was still fresh, the dialog burns white-hot in places. The Ned in this production, Craig Petersen, couldn’t keep his seat during the cast’s first read-through. Jumping up, he shook the script like a weapon.

“I’ve loved Petersen in everything I’ve seen him in, but this is the first time I’ve gotten to work with him,” VanCleave says.

The director finds his whole cast “really exciting,” also praising Karen Schaeffer in the lone woman’s role (played by Julia Roberts in the recent HBO adaption). In rehearsal, he encouraged everyone to draw out the play’s humor.

“Wit was everything, for the gay community of that time,” he explains. “It was almost all they had — like laughing past the graveyard.”

The way the zingers fly, in fact, sounds a bit like jazz.

Overheard in the Lobby: From Jan. 27-29, at the Fort Dodge National Guard base, Des Moines Metro Opera presents “Soldier Songs,” an opera adapted from interviews with veterans of recent American wars. ♦

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