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Center Stage

From stage famine to performance feast

1/31/2024

The classic play, “Our Town,” comes to life at the Des Moines Community Playhouse Feb. 2-18. Emily (Jula Spera) and George (Derek Steffen), two of the special residents of Grover’s Corners. Photo by Brent Isenberger Photography

February stages come to vibrant life, enticing winter dwellers from their cozy confines. A tantalizing range of shows spans from classic to comedy to musical to children’s theatre as the region’s talent focuses on a bounty of shows to savor. Ballet Des Moines even brings another world premiere to the stage as they continue their nationally acclaimed engagement of new patrons to the powerfully expressive “language of movement.” Acclimating to winter weather has happened. Now, it’s time to sally forth and appreciate what’s happening on stage.

The diversity of regional productions being offered suggests that companies are doing excellent work at not only listening to what their audiences desire, but also what fits into a well-rounded regional offering of shows. “Our Town,” “Equus,” “Company,” “The Odd Couple” (Female version), and “Les Miserables” anchor February’s shows, an eclectic selection of drama, musicals and comedy. 

“Our Town” graces the Playhouse stage. “Our Town” was created by Thornton Wilder in 1938. Described by Edward Albee as “the greatest American play ever written,” it presents the fictional American town of Grover’s Corners through the everyday lives of its citizens. I have always had a great appreciation for this script and how it resonates with audiences. My nephew, T.J. Sullivan (as “Joe Crowell”) made his Broadway debut in the 2002 production starring Paul Newman. A sixth production of “Our Town” on Broadway is planned for later this year. This show should be on everyone’s bucket list of live performances to see, and the Playhouse production should be a gem.

“ ‘Our Town’ is set in the early 1900s, but it’s an enduring play because it reminds us of what makes us human and that we must soak up every wonderful moment of our lives while we can,” shares its director, Katy Merriman. “It is simple, beautiful, and meant for anyone and everyone to hear.”

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With a boldness that reflects the spirit of Tallgrass Theatre’s annual Dream Project, “Equus” is Peter Schaffer’s story of a psychiatrist who attempts to treat a young man who has a pathological religious fascination with horses. Nominated in 1975 for five Tony Awards, winning Best Play and Best Direction of a Play, this production is not for young people nor the faint of heart, but is for cultural adventurers and connoisseurs of great playwrighting. Any use of recording devices during this show is strictly prohibited due to the show’s nudity and content.

“It fits perfectly with our Sarah Frank and Jack Balcombe Dream Project,” says Thomas D. Perrine, Tallgrass’ artistic director. “I fondly remember a deep discussion I had with Jack and Sarah about this script while TTC was still producing shows at Rex Mathes Auditorium.” 

Restrictions with that space forced Tallgrass to wait until they moved to their new black box theater, a performing hall perfectly suited for the thought-provoking journey Shaffer’s script takes its audiences.

Storming into town are two national Broadway tours at Des Moines Performing Arts. “Company” is the winner of five Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical, which, as Variety says, ”…strikes like a lightning bolt. It’s brilliantly conceived and funny as hell.” Cameron Mackintosh’s timelessly irresistible “Les Miserables” will always be an exhilarating experience, whether for the first or the 51st time. 

Two great family shows are on the docket, perfect for getting the young ones out to experience live theatre as presented by their peers. These familiar stories will give parents and grandparents the chance to chat about the stories beforehand and lead to lively discussions afterwards. CAP (Class Action Productions) Theatre brings “The Music Man Jr” to life on stage, and Des Moines Young Artists’ Theatre presents the musical adaptation of “Finding Nemo Jr.” Both shows are a shorter presentation length, suited for the less patient and younger patrons of the arts. These two companies have become springboards for many students to engage in learning about theatre arts, whether as patrons, actors or in production roles. 

Spicing up this short month, long on live performance arts, are several one-off gems. Ballet Des Moines, under the artistic direction of the uber-talented Tom Mattingly, gifts the region with a world premiere valentine – “Love Letters.” A pop-up company, Once in a While Productions, raises awareness through their production at The Garden, “The Vagina Monologues.” The irreverent, irrepressible comedy of Dixie Longate returns for another run of hilarity as the Temple Theatre will reverberate with gales of laughter in her “Dixie’s Never Wear a Tube Top While Riding a Mechanical Bull.” Add a script reading and some Broadway karaoke, and this month will deliver plenty of chances to shake off the winter doldrums through a wealth of performing arts entertainment. ♦

John Busbee is a creative project developer, critic, playwright, author, producer and media professional. He has produced his weekly show, The Culture Buzz, on KFMG since 2007.

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