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Theatrical review - Hedwig packs punch in raucous musical   Hedwig packs punch in raucous musical
Theatrical review - Visceral production pulses with energy   Visceral production pulses with energy
Theatrical review - Exceptional show produces giggles, guffaws and grand entertainment   Exceptional show produces giggles, guffaws and grand entertainment
Des Moines Civic Center   ROCK OF AGES - Iconic rock classics wrapped in comedy, eye-candy

Connect with your Inner Blonde for a great summer treat

Connect with your Inner Blonde for a great summer treat
Theatrical review by John Busbee
Des Moines, Iowa
July 13, 2013

The Des Moines Playhouse continues a great tradition for Iowans seeking super summer singing on stage: their summer musical. This year’s offering will not disappoint, as “Legally Blonde: The Musical” bubbles to vibrant life on 42nd Street. The shrewd staff at the venerable Playhouse understands that a great influx of talent is available when college students return home for the summer, and often seek a creative outlet while back in Central Iowa. The benefits of such timeliness abound in this show, and everyone seeking an effervescent summertime theatre experience should add this musical to their “summer time fun” list.

“Legally Blonde: The Musical,” with the book written by Iowan Heather Hach, offers first-timers and fans a fun story that surprises with a few meaningful lessons mixed in. Laurence O’Keefe’s music and lyrics anchor the ascension of Elle Woods from seeming ditzy sorority girl to new heights. In following what she thinks is her “true love” to Harvard, she proves that beneath her golden tresses pulses the brain of a very gifted, determined woman. This journey shows that substance is more important than status, and being true to oneself is a great foundation for any meaningful life.

Thanks to the design magic of Tim Wisgerhof, the action sweeps along at a captivating clip. The flying in and out of elements coupled with the twisting and turning of his signature multipurpose stage elements provide an appealing array of settings for Director Ron Ziegler to use as his theatrical playground. And, use it he does well. I’m sure Ziegler doesn’t need any caffeine when working on such a show, as the sheer energy level of a well-balanced, talented cast must have infused the rehearsal space with a continual creative rush. Add Choreographer Alison Shafer’s always-pleasing dance work, and the stage seems continually awash in action. (Does she also have to choreograph the seemingly complex scene shifts of Wisgerhof’s set? Could be!) The end product on stage, however, shows not only great skill on Ziegler’s part, but shines with his obvious passion for theatre.

As Elle, Katy Merriman is the cornerstone of this show. She captures all the nuances and energy of Elle as we follow the arc of her story, delivering moment after moment of great performance in acting and song. Leading her Delta Nu sisterly support team is the trio of Margot, Serena and Pilar, played to buoyant perfection by Halen Becker, Taylor Millar and Kourtney Richards, respectively. As Emmett, the young law instructor who eventually makes a case for Elle, Charlie Reese brings his affable, powerfully voiced “A” game to this show. Operating Elle’s therapist’s office cleverly disguised as a beauty parlor, Jill S. Ziegler breathes irresistible life into her Paulette, especially pleasing with her signature number, “Ireland,” and her klutzy yet hormonally-charged relationship with her new UPS delivery guy, played to beef-cake magnificence by Kelly Peavey. As the steely Harvard law professor and lead attorney Callahan, Kent Fieldsend embodies all the power and command of his position – until his anticipated and well-received fall from grace. As Elle’s love interest, Warner, Jonathan Brugioni captures all the smarmy, self-serving aura that leaves everyone wondering what she saw in him. Giving a great foil to counter Elle’s transparency is Megan Helmers, whose turn at Brooke evolves nicely through the show. Rounding out the talent team from Harvard selected by Callahan to defend a client is Mary Craven, with a great penchant for comedy as the libber law lesbian. Jim Kolnik also earns a special nod as Nikos, the pool boy and focus of the trial’s murder investigation – judge him great for an over-the-top performance.

Complete the cast with a superior and chameleon-like gift for delivering strong song, dance and performance, and the formula is spot-on for a great show. “Legally Blonde” delivers a theatrical punch that’s as thirst-quenching as a tall glass of iced lemonade on a hot Iowa summer day. So, get your tickets for a refreshing respite from the great outdoors, and savor the cool confines of the Des Moines Playhouse as it delivers another talented dose of summer stage fun.




Theatrical review: Frisky ‘Tenor’ hits all the high notes


Frisky ‘Tenor’ hits all the high notes

Theatrical review by John Busbee

Des Moines, Iowa

May 25, 2013

With a similar certainty to Capistrano’s swallows, you can be sure that Ken Ludwig’s “Lend Me a Tenor” returns to many stages. When performed at a molto magnifico level as done by the Des Moines Playhouse, this becomes a triumphant return for a show last produced here in 1992. Ludwig’s script is a timeless winner, and this production is a laugh-a-minute version as grand as the opera world it lampoons.

With a feel of the romps in classic Marx Brothers movies, this story accelerates with tremendous speed and ease. Max, the assistant, is in the cross hairs of his demanding boss, Saunders, his dissatisfied fiancé, Maggie, and the visitiworld renowned Italian tenor, Tito Merelli, as Cleveland prepares for their opera’s 10th anniversary fundraiser performance of “Othello” starring the Italian star. Add Tito’s fiery wife, Maria, an overly attentive and ardent opera fan bellhop, the local opera company’s calculatingly seductive diva, Diana, and the opera guild’s infatuated president, Julia, and Ludwig has created a masterful recipe for misadventures in the performance pandemonium to unfold. With the digestively challenged Tito arriving late, coupled with his incendiary Richard Burton-Liz Taylor like marital relationship, the careful plans Saunders laid out quickly unravel. Add a bevy of support characters all pushing to meet the great opera star, and the action tumbles across the stage in an ebb and flow of delightful calamity.

Director Kathy Pingel clearly understands the challenges of well-executed farce, and skillfully guides her talented cast through the chaotic physicality this script demands. “Lend Me a Tenor” spills across the stage at a rib-tickling pace by a cast truly gifted with their comedic timing and interplay. Designer Tim Wisgerhof’s scenic design gives us a grand sweep of gilded elegance that virtually drips with opulence. He perfectly captures the haute couture of the show’s 1934 setting, giving the audience a breath-taking first view upon entering the theatre. This wonderful playground provides all the elements this ensemble needs to embark into their farcical misadventures. All begins with delicious subtlety when the Bellhop (Mark Maddy) efficiently gives the suite a final once-over in anticipation of Merelli’s arrival, whom the Bellhop idolizes. Maddy’s meticulous fluffing of pillows and bed covers, followed by an indulgent moment with chocolates on the pillows, set the tone for his crisply delivered, scene-stealing work.

However, as each character is introduced into the action, the focus swiftly shifts. Costume Designer Angela Lampe obviously savored the chance to clad these characters, which she does marvelously. Each entrance feels like a runway show reveal, and deservedly so. Each role is completely embraced, and the ensemble work delightfully done. Maggie, played with pouting star-struck adulation by Susan Q. Lynn, maneuvers for the prospect of meeting Merelli in person, while treating her fiancé, Max, with tepid responses to his advances. Max, given indecisive lovability by Michael Tallman, is continually torn between diverse issues -- his fiancé, his boss’ demands, catering to the challenging opera star, and his own dream of singing lead roles in operas. As Saunders, manager of the opera company, Maxwell Schaeffer exudes a calculating demeanor of someone whose bottom-line focus is charmingly cloaked with the agility to swiftly turn on a dime to head in whatever direction he needs to assure success.

When Tito Mirelli and his wife, Maria, enter, the intensity ratchets up several notches as the ongoing love-spat between the bombastic Tito and the volatile Maria spins, twirls and otherwise moves throughout the stage like a Mad magazine Don Martin pother. Josh Visnapuus’s flamboyant Tito is full-blown theatrical enjoyment, as he struts, preens and seduces his way through the show. Elisabeth A. Ballstadt embraces her Maria with all the smoldering, explosive sexiness and command one would hope for. As the devious diva, Andréa Markowski brings her sultry, runway-model A-game to play as she plots how to reach her goal of performing at the Met. As the opera guild president, Sue Tell embodies an incredibly sparkly version of Mrs. Thurston Howell the 3rd, as she shimmers and minces across the stage in an outfit that rightfully is described as looking like “the Chrysler Building.” Swooning in the presence of her operatic idol, Tell elicits chuckles as she clumsily flirts for Tito’s attentions. Would it help if Visnapuu and Tallman could sing? Absolutely, especially when they belt out a heartfelt duet. Does the show suffer from their lack of musical skills? Not really.

The Playhouse’s “Lend Me a Tenor” brings a stellar display of comedic stage work to vibrant life, leaving the audiences gasping for air between all the laughs and antics of this talented team. So, treat yourself to the sartorial hysterics of a marvelous show, which delivers naughtiness and farce to perfection.


Photo credit: Des Moines Register // (Steve Gibbons/Special to the Register)



Theatrical review: ‘13’ is one lucky musical theatre experience


‘13’ is one lucky musical theatre experience 
Theatrical review by John Busbee
Des Moines, Iowa
May 19, 2013

To say there is a new kid in town might be a bit misleading. However, after a few years of developing its role at the Unitarian Church, Des Moines Onstage, in its performing space partnership with the Des Moines Social Club, makes a very positive statement with their current production, “13 The Musical.” This is a great show to bring any performance-considering kid to, as the young cast does an exceptional job of delivering a vibrant and engaging show. Even if you don’t have kids to share this experience with, “13” will prove to be a wonderfully entertaining evening of locally produced musical theatre.

“13” follows the transition of almost-13-year-old Evan Goldman’s move from New York City to a small town in Indiana. With visions of a most horrible pending bar mitzvah, he maneuvers, connives and otherwise does whatever he can to become part of the “in crowd,” assuring a large attendance at his bar mitzvah. The resulting confusion, intrigue and baring of souls provides the rich fodder for this delightful journey. It’s a show filled with lyrics and dialogue which cleverly work better than much of the stereotypical “teen angst” literature, movies and theatre that’s being presented.

Leveraging her masterful abilities to full effect, Director Karla Kash has blended a diverse range of talent into her superb cast. From area middle and high schoolers to baby-faced college kids, Kash found an energized ensemble that compellingly embraces the music, dance and messages of “13.” As Choreographer, Kash fills the stage with song after song of clever, exuberant movement. Jay Michael Jagim masterfully designs a set allowing full movement with levels, movable pieces and a flexibility giving focus on the action.

Quickly drawing the audience into the disastrous turn in his life from his parents’ divorce, 12-1/2 year old Evan Goldman shares his hopelessness through asides to the audience. As Goldman, Adam Jedlicka anchors the show as a believably conflicted youth learning to separate the superficial from the meaningful now that he is in Indiana. Jedlicka has the singing and acting chops to effectively carry this lead role. His opening “13/Becoming a Man” quickly sets the direction through his strong delivery. He is wonderfully balanced by the rest of the talented ensemble, as the music laden show provides plenty of opportunity for all to shine. As outcast Patrice, Syndey Allen brings an appealing honesty to her role. As a pair of best friend cheerleaders (are they really?), Glori Dei Filippone as Kendra and Kyra Berg as Lucy bring a volatile interplay to wonderful life as Lucy plots behind Kendra’s back, while Kendra’s innocence suffers at the hands of Lucy’s conniving ways. Filippone’s energetic performance is nicely balanced with some quieter scenes, which she delivers with a soft edge, adding a rich layer to the show’s core energy. She perfectly delivers one of the show’s best lines, “Boys are so stupid, no wonder they’re not girls!” Berg plays the conniver to perfection. As another outcast, Archie comes to sage life through the excellent work of Nick Black. Blending comedy and irony with deft strokes, Black gives us an Archie who has weathered the abuse of his peers who prejudge before knowing who he is.

“13” is designed to allow all ensemble members a moment to shine, and Kash understands how to do this exceptionally well, especially when working with such talent. Some memorable moments include Brett, the jock big man on campus, played with delightful Alpha-male idiocy by Andrew Gamble, and John Greenwood as Eddie, one of Brett’s lackies, who displays a keen comic ability, endearing himself to the audience during their first number, “Hey, Kendra.” Throughout the entire show, Under Kash’s guidance, the cast brings a sophisticated sense of timing and understanding to the show’s songs and messages. And, trust me, never will you see the term “tongue-whipped” slipped into the dialogue with such Mel Brooks aplomb as in this show.

Where Des Moines Onstage earns major kudos is in establishing a meeting point for excellent collaborative theater in Central Iowa. Bob Filippone, Des Moines Onstage producer, has created a new company which brings students from diverse area schools and universities together in an environment of encouragement, learning and passion. These opportunities for youth are far and few between, and this is one supported by parents and community. While some elements of this show may lack polish or precision – such as microphone challenges or trying to light a large space with a minimum of lighting instruments – the inherent core commitment to performing arts is worthy of this community’s support. Attend this and future Des Moines Onstage productions, now part of the Des Moines Social Club’s resident theatre companies, and savor the rewards from enjoying the growth of a new performing force in the Greater Des Moines community.



Theatrical review: Powerful theatre trifecta: direction, cast, scenic design

Powerful theatre trifecta: direction, cast, scenic design
A theatre review by John Busbee 
Des Moines, Iowa  
April 21, 2013

Repertory Theatre of Iowa (RTI) continues to add exceptional blocks to its growing performing arts legacy wall with their current production, “That Championship Season.” Jason Miller’s pithy script is dense material, harkening to a harsher, more visceral time in America. RTI’s ability to find such gems and deliver such theatrical excellence is a blessing for Iowans savoring thought-provoking stage work.

“That Championship Season” is Miller’s 1972 play, a gritty story about the twenty year reunion of the Scranton, Pennsylvania state championship team of 1952. Winner of the 1973 Pulitzer Prize as well as that year’s New York Drama Critics’ Choice, Drama Desk and Tony Award for Best Play, this show ran for 700 performances on Broadway.

Four members of the championship team starting lineup continue their reunion tradition with their coach, now suffering from a terminal illness. Martin, the fifth member, refuses to attend, with the reason revealed at the end of the show. The others cope with what life has dealt them, with the layers of their flaws and malcontent unveiling as the flow of liquor loosens their filters of civility. Even their anchor, the Coach, doesn’t seem to rule with the same iron-fistedness as he once did. Each character is steeped in prejudices and personal maneuverings, with ever-shifting alliances and intentions often escalating to vicious encounters. The reunion’s traditional closing with the replay of the announcer’s play-by-play of the game-winning shot seems to be the one intervention to reunite the team into a bearable truce.

Director Tom Woldt’s superb cast, one of the finest complete ensembles in recent memories, washes the stage with ever-shifting movement and focus. This production crackles with an intensity thanks to Woldt’s cast delivering Miller’s language so effectively. Each actor not only immerses himself into his character completely, but the interplay between all rings genuine, as if we were privy to a volatile reunion between a bigoted autocrat coach and “his boys.” Miller’s directness with prejudices and language make many squirm, and laughter often comes from an uncomfortable reaction to blatant racism as from the comedy of man’s ways. All in all, this is brilliant material delivered brilliantly.

As George Sitkowski, the town’s mayor, John Earl Robinson brings a richly layered character to life as he continually validates his life’s achievements, especially preparing for the next mayoral election. Tom Daley, played with impeccable timing by Craig Petersen, is the cynical alcoholic n’er-do-well, but never at a loss for delivering the perfect dagger in any given situation. Tom’s brother, James, is played with an initial poise by Jonathan Delima, a poise that quickly reduces when his status in this team relationship seems destined to be undermined. Shawn Wilson, as the blustering Italian strip-mining millionaire, grabs his role with an entitled ferocity, bulldozing his way to whatever he wants…or, so he thinks. As the curmudeony sovereign leader of the championship team, The Coach is brought to irascible crustiness by Richard Maynard. His unforgiving superiority over those he thinks as his lesser – African-Americans and Jews in particular, although much less appropriate terms are used – give him a foul-tasting holdover from another era as he manipulates and controls “his boys,” basking in the decades old afterglow of that championship as someone trying to savor the last rays of a day’s fading sunlight.

The visual aspect of this show is incredible. Perhaps the hallmark of a superior scenic designer is when he transforms a space, with limited resources, into a special world of drama. Master Designer Jay Michael Jagim conjures a design for “That Championship Season” that alone is worth the price of admission! This design epitomizes the “less is more” adage, using “white” space behind walls and book shelves, with a seeming depthless effect behind his set, enhanced by exquisite lighting, giving an other-worldliness that is captivating. The impact of this design enhances the story and ensemble wonderfully.

RTI’s “That Championship Season” will long be a hallmark production discussed in Central Iowa, and you will regret not having seen this show. So, be sure to do so before it closes May 5th.


Theatrical review: Sink your teeth into “Eating Raoul”


Sink your teeth into “Eating Raoul”
Theatrical review by John Busbee
West Des Moines, Iowa
April 20, 2013

Taking a bigger than usual step as part of its calculated growth in the Greater Des Moines theatre scene, Tallgrass Theatre Company offers its first musical, “Eating Raoul.” This 1982 cult classic film turned into 1992 stage musical is as offbeat as its title suggests, offering a banquet of quirky, comedic delight with enough action, oddities and hilarity to sate the most ravenous of entertainment appetites. Add the fact that Tallgrass has the distinction of being the only theatre troupe in America currently offering this “Rocky Horror Picture Show” meets “Sweeney Todd” romp, and you know you’re in for a singularly unique performing experience.

As resident theatre company in the Rex Mathes Auditorium in West Des Moines, Tallgrass has helped the special personality of this space evolve into its hallmark intimate proscenium space. Don’t look for towering scenic elements, delivered by fleets of tractor trailers, but rather a focus on creative design structure supporting the reason for attending: sharing an evening with a fine producing company. Its inaugural musical does provide the opportunity to add live musicians, much to Tallgrass’ credit.

“Eating Raoul” follows the husband-wife duo of Mary and Paul Bland, whose last name reflects their personalities, as they struggle to achieve their dream of running their own restaurant, while coping with the world’s onslaught of perversions and inequities. Paul loses his job. Mary is assaulted by a swinger down the hall of their apartment building, and is saved by Paul’s intervention with a cast iron skillet over the assailant’s head. The best of the Blands’ intentions quickly spin out of control, as an initial self-defensive noggin-crunching, killing the boorish crunchee, leads to a new lifestyle of clobbering the perverse for cash. Add the slimy super, Raoul, who helps rid the Blands of their corpses, and this parade of perversion wildly stumbles to its titled conclusion.

Director Jessie Phillips has assembled one of the largest casts to grace a Tallgrass stage. Aided by a team of fight and dance choreographers, Phillips washes the tight confines with an ever shifting flow of action. As Mary and Paul Bland, Megan Helmers and Charlie Reese anchor this eclectic ensemble. Both have great stage presence and chemistry, giving this show a core strength as it whirls through a quagmire of quirky encounters. Early in their unintended spiral into murder, the Blands form a thieves’ bond with their nefarious super, Raoul, given unctuous perfection by Dave Kaniuk Jr. This trio provides the primary thread as an ongoing series of perverts, drawn to the Blands’ S&M/swinger alter egos, are dispatched by Paul’s weapon of choice, a cast iron skillet clonking the skull, then “recycled” by Raoul.

This over-the-top script provides plenty of chances for the ensemble to showcase an array of odd characters, and creative costuming and overt acting deliver these cameos. Everyone gives their enthusiastic best, and some memorable performances include Dave Brooks as the smarmy realtor, James, helping the Blands as well as other disco-infused characters, and Trey McCracken as Ginger, the tap-dancing rich swinger, in a terrific tap number with Helmers.

All things considered, “Eating Raoul” seems a perfect first musical for Tallgrass – a bit left of center, and silly enough to tickle any funny bone. So, loosen up the belt a notch or two, and indulge in a hefty helping of hilarity as “Eating Raoul” runs through May 4.




Twin-bill beckons audiences into the world of Absurdist Theatre

As with many of Greater Des Moines’ cultural offerings, the performing arts scene is enjoying unprecedented range and growth. Along with the established producing entities is a contributing force of independent producers. And, adding its own special blend of access to works often not available in live-performance fashion is the programming through the Des Moines Social Club. This group’s current twin-bill offering of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter and Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano: Anti-play demonstrates not only an increase in diverse offerings in Central Iowa, but an eager audience waiting for such experiences. If the success of a thriving, growing culturally embracing community is gauged by the health of its live performing arts, then this community is vibrant.

Under the guidance of one of this region’s strongest cultural catalysts, Zachary Mannheimer directs this set of plays, giving audiences a rare chance to experience theatre works that usually sit on a book shelf. This production is a testament to the Des Moines Social Club’s nurturing of new audiences willing to take cultural adventurer leaps of faith, and experience what is offered. If anyone comes expecting the laugh-track sit-com world of modern television, dispel such a notion.

Mannheimer has assembled strong talent to bring these plays to life. The Spartan setting of the former Kirkwood ballroom space, with seating on either side of this narrow performing space, works well in bringing the attention to the performance.

The Dumb Waiter features Brendan Dunphy as Ben and Scott Siepker as Gus, a pair of hit men forced to wait in a stark basement for their next assignment. The interplay between Dunphy and Siepker is exceptional, as their characters, complete with foibles and folly, move with a driven pace that ebbs and flows with influencing intrusions into their space. Dunphy brings a steely edge to his strong role, giving Siepker wonderful opportunities to be the perfect, wilting foil to his volatile partner’s explosiveness.

After intermission and a set change, The Bald Soprano: Anti-play draws the audience much further into the looking glass world of Absurdist Theatre. Stylistic and symbolic, this play toys with perceptions. Mr. and Mrs. Smith, played by Joe Smith and Mary Bricker, begin with a ritualistic, oblique entry into the play’s direction. Played by Eric Lee and Laryssa Husiak, Mr. and Mrs. Martin’s entrance brings another level of complexity to the interaction of the show’s characters, especially with the occasional interjections by KtMarie Scarcello as Mary, and finally the entrance of the Fire Chief, given grand pomposity by Michael Davenport. To attempt a story line is to do this work an injustice, as it is more experiential than explanatory. The delectable truth is that this experience, when approached with an open mind, is wonderfully memorable.

These two works will make you scratch your head and expand your reasoning. And, true, Absurdist Theatre is not everyone’s cup of tea. In the evolution of theatre, however, it is an important chapter, and these two works are cornerstones of that movement. I encourage you to embrace this opportunity to experience something well crafted and different than the usual local theatrical offerings. I promise you a curtain call that will be perhaps the most memorable you will have ever experienced.




‘Mockingbird’ fills stage with visual impact

‘Mockingbird’ fills stage with visual impact
Theatrical review by John Busbee, West Des Moines, Iowa, January 22, 2012

The Des Moines Playhouse brings in the new year with an old classic, one of the most iconic works in literature, stage and cinema: “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Harper Lee’s novel retains impact and relevance today, and the Playhouse delivers a deliciously defined production of this landmark story.

At midpoint during its 93rd season, the venerable Playhouse flexes its creative muscles with this stunningly beautiful production. Veteran director John Viars, supported by an enviable production team of dedicated staff and volunteers, delivers a brooding rendition of this iconic story. Delivered with a deliberate, pulsating pace, this production of “Mockingbird” demonstrates why it so ably has withstood the test of time. Indeed, even the scenic design becomes a vital presence in this production.

Upon entering the theatre, be sure to take a moment to savor the full impact of master Scenic Designer Tim Wisgerhof’s set. Standing in the middle of the theatre, behind the orchestra seating section, the sheer artistry of this show’s visual elements make a profound establishing impression, as one’s eyes drink in the color palette on stage, then pull out to the floating window and gable elements suspended above stage and seating. When the action begins, Wisgerhof’s design recedes with a sublime power, wrapping the theatre in a series of visual trasnformations through clever hidden scenic elements and the evocative lighting design of Virgil Kleinhesselink. At times, when well-lit, the houses and ground glow in a weathered copper patine, washing the stage in a somber, textured turquise undertone. When the lighting is subdued, the dripping accents take on an almost bleeding illusion. All these scenic manifestations serve to enhance the stage action in subtle, powerful ways, radiating a cornucopia of scenic magic.

With a keen eye for stage patterns, Viars uses an excellent ebb and flow of his cast to keep the action moving forward. This story unfolds through a series of introductions of key characters. Scout (the nickname of Jean Louise Finch, daughter of protagonist, Atticus Finch), played with precocious pluck by Sarah Schott, carries herself with a presence beyond her years. Strong Southern dialect and clear voice, Schott excels. (Scout is played on alternate performances by Mary Katherine Gillette.) Scout’s brother, Jem (for Jeremy Finch), proves to be an able foil to his sister, and this role is well-delivered by Ben Spence. A new friend to town, Charles Baker Harris, who prefers the nickname, “Dill,” is given strong stature by Asa Stanfield. Stanfield’s sense of timing and comic delivery are wonderful. This trio of young performers work commendably together, and in the full context of the show. Other standouts include Elizabeth Knoll as Calpurnia, the Finch’s housekeeper. Knoll brings an earnest believability to her part. Susan J. Eisenhour is delightfully droll, tossing perfectly crafted quips and glances as Maudie Atkinson, one of the Finch neighbors. As the victim precipatating the courtroom drama, Katelyn McBurney brings a cowering, angry realism to her Mayella Ewell. Her fear of her father, Bob Ewell, is palpable. The father role is played with loathing arrogance by veteran local actor, Eric Bench. Bringing his character to a finessed sense of finality with his closing monologue, Terry Yakish earns high praise in the role of Heck Tate, the local lawman.

With visions of the movie adaptation of this book and play burned in the mind, Greg Blumhagen is able to capture much of the understated resolve of Atticus Finch, a color-blind attorney now fighting for the life of his client, Tom Robinson, a role nicely played with beaten fatalism by Pernell D. Ferguson. As Judge Taylor, Jim Arthur seems to have been pulled from Central Casting as the iconic Southern magistrate.

Other production elements to be applauded are Angela Lampe’s costume design, garbing a large cast in a plethora of period costumes. Lampe’s consistently excellent work should never be overlooked – just experience a show where costuming is an afterthought or addressed with a “that’ll do” approach, and Lampe’s successful tenure as the Greater Des Moines goddess of design is even better appreciated. Sound Designer Chris Nelson adds a blend of natural sounds which enhance the visual and acting journey, and Mr. Renaissance Man, Maxwell Schaeffer, brings a solemn musical sound track to further flavor the production.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” harkens to a different era in theatrical presentation, and the Playhouse excels with this production. Savor the rich influences of classic American literature, and journey to another time and place with this fine piece of theatre.


‘Dancing with the Moon’ delivers process insights

‘Dancing with the Moon’ delivers process insights
Theatrical review by John Busbee, West Des Moines, Iowa, January 21, 2012

what has become an eagerly anticipated annual rite for Iowa’s playwright community, Tallgrass Theatre Company celebrates its sixth version of their annual Iowa Playwrights Workshop. In this competitive arts discipline, Tallgrass gives Iowa-connected playwrights the opportunity to submit scripts, and the coveted winner gets the opportunity to participate in developing a production of his or her work. This year, Tom Deiker’s “Dancing with the Moon” received the nod, and runs Fridays and Saturdays through February 4 at the Rex Mathes Theatre in West Des Moines.

Tallgrass’ Iowa Playwrights Workshop gives cultural patrons the chance to be part of the development process, as each year’s work yields valuable information about audience response when a play finally journeys from page to stage. Those who attend “Dancing with the Moon” during its 6-performance run will see an original work which holds much promise to continue its development, with an end goal it will likely be produced in other markets. Is this show Broadway-bound? Probably not, but that does not lessen the importance of this creative process, and the role patrons play in that process.

Deiker’s plot follows the interactions of a small band of everyday folks, linked through work and inter-relationships, with the lines sometimes getting quite blurred, and even a bit bloodied. Kate (Melissa Powell) anchors much of the action as the older woman who seems to be “searching for love in all the wrong places.” She is part of a trio of co-workers at a small establishment: there’s the relationship-challenged college student Francis (Timothy W. Rodriguez) and the younger woman Jeanine (Shaylee Young). They work for the Greek owner, Mr. Theodorakis (R. J. Lundgren), whose propensity for walking into situations at the wrong time adds a bit of comedic spice to the action. Add a couple of erstwhile love-interest types – Slim (Scott Hoyt) as the truck-drivin’ tough with the tempestuous link to Kate, and Leesa (Abby Clayton) who’s attracted by fellow psychology student Francis – and the potential for some interesting results is set.

Powell plunges into her role with unconstrained enthusiasm, mostly capturing the free spirited essence of Kate. Rodriquez presents his Francis with a bit too much mono-dimensionality, but has some nice moments throughout the show with the many conflicted crossroads he travels. As Jeanine, Young brings some nice balance and supportive interplay to the trio of workers, whose clock-punching lives often stray into personal and romantic grounds. With patron-like gravitas, Lundgren helps his Theodorakis evolve from a stern taskmaster into a more complex, interacting part of this community family. In roles as love interests, Hoyt (with a rollicking relationship with Kate) brings a rough element into the fray, and Clayton (whose passion for the physical is not matched by Francis) adds the love-lost aspect to that relationship.

Under the direction of Jerry Eisenhour, this ensemble doesn’t achieve a spontaneous tempo the script demands. Conversely, there often was a sense of the script seeming to try too hard. While the core characters were fairly well defined, the energy for each character didn’t play off her or his fellow actors as strongly as could have happened. A sense of self-conscientiousness seemed to cloak the ensemble, rather than seeing characters grow through a strong sense of intuitive commitment.
The choice to use set elements and props is good, as it gives focus to the script and character development. However, more backstage help would definitely have helped the slow scene changes, which were clumsy due to slow light cues and a lack of scene shift urgency.

All things considered, however, this is part of the process, and those who appreciate peeking through the window to see how a play is made will appreciate the many elements that did succeed in this show. There are many fun moments through the show, such as when the older Kate reflects on her inevitable maturation from “a 36 C to a 36 Long.” With a script filled with such potential sparkle, a little more time, and little more work, “Dancing with the Moon” can evolve into something many other troupes will enjoy producing…and, many future audience members will delight in.


Masterfully presented musical packs a memorable punch

Masterfully presented musical packs a memorable punch
Theatrical review by John Busbee, Des Moines, Iowa, January 15, 2012

There comes a time when a relatively new theatre company sheds the label “emerging” or “new” and makes a creative statement that shows it stands with any and all of a community’s creative producers. “Parade” makes such a statement. StageWest Theatre Company’s latest offering boldly and successfully establishes the seeming oxymoron: an epic musical in the Stoner Theater space. “Parade” is a legacy-proving milestone bringing a production value rivaling any Iowa theatre company’s best, including touring productions. “Parade” is a show which must be seen, or forever regretfully missed.

“Parade,” book by Alfred Uhry, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, sweeps us back almost one hundred years to a regrettable time in American history. The gruesome rape and murder of Mary Phagan, a 13-year old pencil factory laborer, in Marietta, Georgia, becomes the ignition point for a firestorm of prejudice, injustice and hatred. The factory’s manager, Leo Frank, is a Yankee Jew from Brooklyn, an unwanted intrusion into the culture of the South. Due more to manipulation by a profit-seeking press than the judicial process, Frank is sentenced to death for this murder. This musical, while a dramatization of the facts, closely and accurately follows this catalytic story which brought many landmark changes to journalistic ethics, the founding of the Anti-Defamation League, and even the unfortunate resurrection of a Ku Klux Klan sect.

Interestingly, Stephen Sondheim was first offered the musical creative role for this project, but turned it down. The music still seems infused with Sondheim-esque influences, however, complete with layered song stylings, complex lyrics and wide variance in musical styles. Brown’s captivating score is superb.

With appealing clarity, Andrew Ryker wraps himself in a completely believable Frank. From his workaholic, fish-out-of-water cultural outsider place, delivered brilliantly in “How Can I Call this Home” where he laments, “That being Southern’s not just being in the South,” Ryker gives one of this show’s strongest performances. One magical moment is during the trial, in a fantasy sequence number “The Factory Girls/Come Up to My Office,” when Frank briefly, demonically shifts to the preying monster he’s unjustly being portrayed. Other highlights include duets with Frank’s wife, Lucille (Lauren Shun).

Ryker is ably matched by many other strong performances. As Leo’s wife, Shun mesmerizes with a vocal power and poise as she shares the resolve of a Southern belle wife devoted to her husband. Lauren Knutson brings a vulnerable innocence coupled with a firm voice to her Mary Phagan in recurring appearances long after her Act One death. Douglas Cochrane delivers a chilling lullaby over the open grave of Mary Phagan, foreshadowing his newspaper’s influence of the pending trial. Like a refreshing tonic, Colin Morgan imbues his multiple characters with ebullient energy, from his debauched newsman, Britt Craig, to his ultimately crusading Governor Slaton. Likewise, as both the governor’s wife and Mary Phagan’s mother, Sarah Hinzman brings subtle yet distinct differences to these roles through her strong stage presence and heartfelt singing. Ben Raanan, as the unctuously evil prosecutor Hugh Dorsey, provides more than enough power and presence to serve as the primary antagonist.

Two audience favorites are theatre veterans Aaron Smith and Casey Gradischnig. As Newt Lee, who should have been the prime suspect and not the primary witness against Frank, and other characters, Smith brings his soul-touching singing coupled with an occasional dark persona to his stage work. Gradischnig delights as the Old Confederate Soldier and Judge Roan, capturing all the skewed Southern pride with poised authority and a bold, textured voice.

The rest of the ensemble similarly enhances this show, with each cast member delivering key highlight moments, while working together with fluid efficiency. Even with most of the cast serving in multiple roles, the flow and energy of “Parade” is continuous and irresistible.

“Parade” is richly filled with engaging songs, staging and ensemble work, thanks to the expertise of Director/Choreographer Karla Kash. Through the design wonder of Eleanor Kahn’s open, versatile and evocative setting, the audience is quickly transported through a range of locations, carried by the moody lighting design of Ian King, Kash excels at filling the space with eye-catching production numbers, driven by talented Musical Director Ben Hagen’s exceptional eight-piece orchestra. One of Kash’s more visceral numbers is the brooding chain gang scene and number, “Feel the Rain Fall” – unforgettable.

Occasionally inconsistent Southern dialects, some incongruous costuming, and minor technical execution are quickly forgiven in the overall context of this exceptional production. These small flaws only serve to remind the audience of the superb caliber of talent available in our community, in a memorable show surely to serve as a future high point of theatrical excellence. When such talent is blended with a masterful production team into the established creative excellence of StageWest, the results are gratifying and delectably sublime. So, don’t let the parade pass you by, and get your tickets while they last. “Parade” runs through January 29.


Book Review - 'A Fashion of Bastards'

 Political thriller with heart - 'A Fashion of Bastards' resonates
Book review by John Busbee, March 2011

Bounding onto the international literary scene is an alluring new force by the name of Joanna Louise Johnson. A Fashion of Bastards is nimble, quick-witted and absolutely irresistible. A Fashion of Bastards quickly draws the reader into a world of political power-broking at its intriguing best, or, worst, depending on your view. It also begs the question, when does high level, self-serving manipulation reach the tipping point of permanent harm to our planet? Johnson's double-edged sword is a first-rate page-turner while giving the reader respectful pause for thought about our environmental vulnerabilities.

Part of Johnson's appeal is how quickly her characters spring to life, quickly weaving them into a rich tapestry on an electrically charged political stage. The dialogue is believable and natural, and, while the action unfolds in an arena to which few of us truly are privy, we experience a privileged surveillance into what could really happen behind those Washington DC closed doors.
The irresistible Lacey Ames anchors Johnson's masterful first work, instantly layered with an appeal (leaving me hoping for her quick return in future adventures). She is resilient; a woman of vitality and keen intelligence, yet she shares an inner voice, playfully unveiling personal foibles and insecurities. Lacey is soft-hearted, yet protected with a Kevlar determination. Her personal default allows her to back down to no one, yet Lacey radiates a vulnerability which often works to her advantage. Intolerant toward pretense and posturing, she quickly realizes that fitting into her new world of politics often challenges her core traits.

A Fashion of Bastards quickly spins into a dizzying interplay of manic maneuvering, as factions broker to claim leverage and power, often paid for by human and environmental capital. Johnson effectively blends such diverse locations as a Japanese coastal village with a despoiled Western mining operation and the Oval Office with Lake Michigan, concocting an international thriller that leaves the reader dizzy with its intoxicating effect.

So, toast the new darling of political intrigue and action. Even if you toast only with water, your first sip of Johnson's work will leave you thirsting for more.


Book Review - 'Aphoristic Effectiveness'

Aphoristic Effectiveness - if only in one glorious volume
A book review by John Busbee for The Culture Buzz

September 28, 2009 - Des Moines, Iowa   For fans of quotes, humor and life-enhancing philosophy, Dr. Mardy Grothe has done it again, and with a flair and appeal none in this genre can match. His latest cerebral feast is "Ifferisms: An Anthology of Aphorisms That Begin with the Word 'If"." And, what a delicious feast it is! I can think of no other word in the English language that holds as much power and promise as the word 'if.' Grothe has marvelously captured the range of this gateway word in this neat little tome.

As Dr. Mardy (his aptly used name) so eloquently explains, "An aphorism is a succinctly phrased observation that attempts to express a truth-or sometimes just an opinion-about the human experience." Mix the passion of an author, completely and irrevocably immersed in his world of quotations, with insights of an experienced psychologist's ability to clarify issues to others, and you will better understand how Dr. Mardy built this book. Each chapter is defined as an ifferistic aphorism, using an appropriate quote to lead the reader into the chapter's subject. "If Anything Can Go Wrong, It Will" headlines the chapter on classic Ifferisms."If the World Were a Logical Place, Men Would Ride Side-Saddle" covers gender dynamics. (When I first saw this chapter heading, I absolutely laughed out loud when the preposterous image of John Wayne riding side saddle in "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" flashed through my head.) You quickly grasp the beauty of his method in categorizing the nearly 2000 Ifferistic quotes contained herein. Sublimely direct with the irresistible appeal of a siren…without the catastrophic results.  

Another way Grothe excels is through his meticulous back story research, giving the reader much more than just a wonderful quote. One of many examples was in talking about this book with my brother-in-law, we both marveled at the story behind one of our most well-known quotes, often referred to as Murphy's Law, "If anything can go wrong, it will." This irksome axiom is rooted in World War II when an aircraft engineer bemoaned the fact that no matter how well he explained directions, his crew would find a way to misinterpret them. This is a clumsy translation of Dr. Mardy's wonderful back story, but you get the idea. Throughout this deceptively and densely packed little book are sprinkled many such delectable tidbits that further enhance the relevance of some of the quotes selected and used.

This is a book that not only needs a space in your personal library, but makes a perfect gift for anyone who loves the power of a well placed quote, especially when planted in such a diverse and inviting landscape as "Ifferisms" presents. So, if you want to feast on a healthy diet of witticisms, insights and observations, get your copy now. To pull another quote from this incredible author, consider that "An aphorism is a one-line novel," says the Ukrainian writer Leonid Sukhorukov. Imagine that. One book; an entire library. If only I had started this library sooner…

Dr. Mardy Grothe provides a free weekly e-newsletter filled that is a wonderful, quick read, filled with enticing information, masterfully helpful quotes and stimulating ideas. Visit to join the legions of appreciative members.



Younger American Poets Bring Warmth to February Cold

At a small independent bookstore in Des Moines on a chilly Thursday evening, friends and family gathered together to listen to some great poetry. Wendy Xu, Kyle McCord, and Matthew Guenette were the poets featured on Thursday February 24th at Beaverdale Books and there was not an empty seat in the house. The Younger American Poets Reading Series is a monthly event which brings poets from across America to Des Moines for readings at local establishments, specifically Beaverdale Books this spring. You can find their mission statement on their facebook page in which they highlight their passion for great poetry and networking with striving poets, to “…provide exposure to a less visible art form”.

Matthew Guenette came from Madison, Wisconsin to read for us from his hilarious and somewhat autobiographical book, American Busboy. His personal experiences with the service industry provided listeners with that pure connection to his words. When he spoke of grilled cheese, we knew he had seen many and that knowledge allowed us to understand his plight when dealing with such busboys that would “fuck an eel if [he] could hold it down by its ears”. Matt brought humor and sincerity to the evening’s lineup and was in vast contrast to Wendy’s poems, often referencing wolves.

Wendy and Kyle’s close relationship was apparent in his introduction and informal jokes about her love of wolves; she read a few poems from her book Wolf Theory. A soft-spoken and genuine reader, her poems were oftentimes dedicated to a friend or written for a family member. Xu’s poems prompted me to consider the reasons poets may write. Generally when novels or stories are written, the dedication follows the completion of the work; but it seemed that Wendy had some specific reasons for writing a poem. One in particular was written to cheer up a friend who was turning twenty-six, which was disheartening for him because that birthday would signify a closer correlate to his imminent thirties than his reminiscent twenties.

Kyle McCord fits somewhere in the middle of, what can be loosely defined as out-of-sight, stealing your tips, and seeker of the waitress panties, and poems written to cheer up a friend. Kyle has – in line with Wendy and Matthew – been published in many journals and his book, Valley of the Beloved and Torment, has a “lyric musicality” which was apparent in his readings on that dreary evening. The limited availability of reputable poetry readings in Des Moines is astounding and this organization has begun an explosive and exciting future for the art form formerly known as poetry.


Bailey Schlegel

Culture Buzz Spring Intern


Stage West - Beebo Brinker Chronicles

 Exploring the dark recesses of our historical closets
Des Moines, Iowa
February 19, 2011 Stepping into a 1950s film noir train station scene where two lovers part, The Beebo Brinker Chronicles begins our journey through a microcosmic glimpse anchored by the Greenwich Village lesbian and gay world in a much different time. The show is filled with spotlit asides, sultry deliveries evoking that cinematic style of the story. This stage adaptation by Kate Moira Ryan and Linda S. Chapman, from books by the iconic Ann Bannon, is most assuredly not a look through rose-colored glasses - unless the spectrums are in shades of rage, boldness and blood. With heavy doses of take-your-breath-away viciousness and dark humor, The Beebo Brinker Chronicles adds a new element to StageWest Theatre Company's legacy of bringing new performing arts experiences to Greater Des Moines audiences.

For those familiar with the source material, this show undoubtedly brings Bannon's groundbreaking pulp fiction series of five books, The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, to a special life on stage. This production resonates with a stylized, sexual surrealism, bordering on the melodramatic. Co-directors Stacy Brothers (who also plays two cameo roles, Lili and Nina, in the show) and Karla Kash bring a wealth of experience to tackle this challenging show, and have assembled a gifted cast.

Read more: Stage West - Beebo Brinker Chronicles


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