Choosing my “best of the year” performances never gets easier, with so many stellar arts and entertainment offerings in Eastern Iowa. And in 2023, several vied for the top spot. But in the end, one just kept on rising above the others, although numbers 2 and 3 were nipping at its well-heeled heels.
Feb. 10 to March 5, 2023, Theatre Cedar Rapids
I couldn’t stop raving after seeing the opening night performance of this gripping musical. Everything about this production — from the acting and singing, to scenery, lighting, costumes and orchestra — could have been transported from Cedar Rapids to Broadway, and New York audiences would have gone wild. I have never heard the title song interpreted the way Broadway veteran Catherine Blades embodied it as Sally Bowles, giving it a shattering last gasp as the Nazis began destroying the world around her. And Aaron Murphy was simply divine as the Emcee, orchestrating the decadence of the Kit Kat Klub, where all were welcome to leave their troubles outside. Until they couldn’t. The ending was so devastating that it felt wrong to applaud, but a production this amazing had to be cheered through tears.
2. An Evening with Ezekiel Andrew
Nov. 15, 2023, Revival Theatre Company, Cedar Rapids
Two Broadway performers teamed up with a local powerhouse to blow the roof off the CSPS Hall in southeast Cedar Rapids. This fundraising concert for Revival Theatre Company gave audiences more than their money’s worth. Ezekiel Andrew, currently in the cast of “The Lion King” on Broadway, has deep ties to Revival Theatre, and offered to return to help raise funds for the small professional troupe with a big reputation. Andrew portrayed Coalhouse Walker in Revival’s 2018 production of “Ragtime”; participated in the 2020 Iowa Concert of Hope that Revival co-founder Brian Glick organized for derecho relief efforts; and performed in the 2021 Brucemorchestra concert staged by Revival Theatre and Orchestra Iowa on the front lawn at Cedar Rapids’ Brucemore mansion. Joining Andrew for the November concert at CSPS were pianist Garrett Taylor, who plays in the pit orchestra for Broadway’s “Wicked,” and local favorite Alicia Monee, who portrayed jazz singer Shug Avery in Revival’s breathtaking 2022 production of “The Color Purple.”
3. “Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience”
May 20 to July 20, 2023, RiverCenter Great Hall, Davenport
From my review: “Stepping into van Gogh’s world opens a portal to the past that swirls into the future.” This immersive experience was nothing short of mind-blowing. The Introduction Room offered glimpses into the artist’s life superimposed on panels of his paintings. The writings contained excerpts from letters to his brother Theo, as well as diary entries, touchpoints in time and historical perspectives. Then visitors stepped into his paintings, projected from the ceiling onto the walls and floors. The ever-changing views in this huge Immersion Room show the progression in his artistry, as well as the downward spiral of his inner turmoil. Special effects and a gorgeous soundtrack added to the sheer beauty of this traveling exhibition.
4. Willie Nelson
May 17, 2320, McGrath Amphitheatre, Cedar Rapids
From my review: “Living history flowed over the riverbank … bathing a sold-out crowd in an hour of hits from Willie Nelson & Family. The icon and his legacy were planted firmly on the McGrath Amphitheatre stage, bridging past, present and future between the 90-year-old megastar and his brilliant doppelganger son, Lukas Nelson, 34.” This was a concert for the ages, and we were so lucky Willie Nelson returned to our mid-size market. Lukas will be back with his band, Promise of the Real, opening for Whiskey Myers on May 5, 2024, at the Alliant Energy PowerHouse indoor arena.
5. “The Play that Goes Wrong”
April 7 to 15, 2023, Theatre Cedar Rapids
A one-week delay — due to an illness — meant that I got to see this laugh riot after all, when I returned from vacation in April. Theatre Cedar Rapids’ cast, crew, designers and builders outdid themselves, in a show that goes so right when everything goes so wrong. The audience was laughing so hard over seeing the scenery fall apart and “dead” bodies breathing that a gentleman near me shouted “Bang!” when a prop gun didn’t go off. I don’t know how the actors kept straight faces, but I do hope they had chiropractors on retainer to undo all the pratfalls that just had to hurt. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard at a play. Well done and undone TCR.
6. Brilliant Bohemian Garnets
June 17, 2023, to Jan. 14, 2024, National Czech Slovak Museum & Library, Cedar Rapids
Cedar Rapids was the only U.S. city chosen to host this exhibit of priceless antique and modern garnets from the National Museum in Prague, Czech Republic. And what a collection it is, on display through Jan. 14, 2024, at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library. The nearly 200 pieces of mostly deep red gemstones range from jewelry worn by the upper class and commoners, as well as adorning everyday items like eyeglasses, mirrors and picture frames. Mining and cutting equipment help tell the story of these Bohemian garnets, part of Czech and Slovak cultural heritage.
7. Five Seasons Lights
Dec. 1 to 31, 2023, McGrath Amphitheatre, Cedar Rapids
This dazzling addition to the downtown Cedar Rapids holiday decorations filled the McGrath Amphitheatre with joy throughout December. From the lighted tunnel to the sparkling gingerbread house and the chance to whisper your wish list to Santa, this was the place to go walking through a winter wonderland.
8. High-flying fun times two
“The Wizard of Oz,” Nov. 17 to Dec. 17, 2023, at Theatre Cedar Rapids
“Mary Poppins,” Dec. 8 to 17, 2023, by City Circle Theatre Company, Coralville
Theater troupes at both ends of the Corridor pulled out all the stops to fly through family favorites for the holidays. The witches, Dorothy, a cow and other characters flew through Kansas and Oz at Theatre Cedar Rapids, while City Circle Acting Company flew Mary Poppins through the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts. Most magical, however, remains the way the Broadway adaptation sends chimney sweep Bert traveling up the side of the proscenium arch, on his way to tap dancing upside down under the topside of the arch, then flipping his way back to his feet on the stage floor. Flying always creates theatrical magic.
9. “A Little Night Music”
Aug. 11 to 27, 2023, Brucemore’s outdoor stage, Cedar Rapids
Theatre Cedar Rapids breathed new life into this Stephen Sondheim romantic farce, anchored by “Send in the Clowns.” The production continues the long-standing tradition of bringing classics to the Peggy Boyle Whitworth Amphitheater in Brucemore’s backyard. For a preview article, director Angie Toomsen told The Gazette: “The magic of this score and the extreme challenge of the score, and meeting those challenges and that sense of accomplishment, is giving everyone this really strong team bond. It feels like we all have a shared mission, conquering this tough material and then making it delightful and meaningful and entertaining. So I think that the dream is alive. And then we’re looking ahead to the ultimate dream which is doing it out under the stars in such a beautiful place. … (We) are so excited to be able to present it in that very special way.”
10. Brucemore Holiday Tours
Nov. 24 to Dec. 31, 2023
Brucemore mansion is stately and warm in any season, but it’s especially spectacular when dressed to the nines for the holidays. Reflecting the Edwardian splendor of the Douglas family — the second of three families to make the 19th century house a home — visitors could ooh and aah over 14 twinkling trees, lighted garland swags on the grand staircase, silver services and formal dining place settings. Even Barbie made an appearance this year, with a pink-themed tree in Barbara Douglas’ second-floor bedroom. And little stuffed Leo the Lions were hiding in plain sight for little visitors to spot on a scavenger hunt. The popular self-guided daytime and evening tours landed Brucemore in sixth place in the annual USA Today readers’ choice Top 10 holiday tours at historic home-museums across the country.
11. “The Trip to Bountiful”
Oct. 20 to Nov. 5, 2023, Riverside Theatre, Iowa City
Anytime Riverside Theatre co-founder Jody Hovland graces the stage, audiences are in for a treat. She was simply luminescent in “The Trip to Bountiful,” in which her character, cooped up with family in the city for 20 years, just wants to see her rural childhood home once more before she dies. It’s set in Texas, but resonates with anyone who has one foot in the city, the other one in the country. The rest of the cast was brilliant, as well as the designers and director. What a thought-provoking drama about chasing dreams at every stage of life, and the difficult decisions families face.
12. “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”
Oct. 6 to 22, 2023, Giving Tree Theater, Marion
Several troupes have staged this comedy over the years, but I’ve never been able to see even one of those productions. Jason Alberty and friends to the rescue. They had to postpone their original 2018 production because of illness, so Giving Tree Theater invited them into its cozy setting in Uptown Marion. This was not a show in which to settle down on a comfy couch and relax. This A-list of area actors — Marty Norton, Grant Blades, Cherryl Moon Thomason, Angela Billman, David Morton and Dyanna Dawn Davidson — led audiences on a merry romp with over-the-top physical comedy and laughs galore in this Tony-winning tale of sibling rivalry and revelry.
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