116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
As we continued to emerge out of pandemic closures, Hannah Brewer, development director at Theatre Cedar Rapids, said it best in a recent Gazette interview:
“I feel like people were hungry to get back to it, and it’s just wonderful to see them want to support the arts again,” she said. “There’s just something about that shared experience with a big room full of people. You laugh together, you cry, and gasp and applaud. There’s nothing else like it.”
And as I tiptoed back into venues, these events rose to my Top 10 for 2022.
1. University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art opens.
This was a long time coming — 14 years after the Flood of 2008 spilled through the UI’s former art museum, deeming it unsuitable for housing the university’s collection and touring exhibitions.
The gleaming new 63,000-square-foot structure, built farther from the Iowa River, opened with a public dedication Aug. 26. By Aug. 28, the $50 million state-of-the-art exhibition and education facility had welcomed more than 4,000 visitors into its galleries — and even more for outdoor activities and entertainment.
The star of the show was Jackson Pollock’s 1943 masterpiece, “Mural.” I’ve written about the giant work many times on its globe-trotting journey since the flood, but had never seen it in person. What a thrill, to see the vibrant movement and colors freshened up after two years of technical study, restoration, cleaning and conservation at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, beginning in the summer of 2012. The 8-foot-by-20-foot oil painting was given to the UI by art collector Peggy Guggenheim in 1951.
2. Riverside Theatre, Mirrorbox Theatre and The James Theater find new homes.
Two theater troupes and an arts presenter opened new facilities this year — each one building on its legacy and adding colorful new threads to the Corridor’s arts tapestry.
Riverside Theatre gave up its home at 213 N. Gilbert St. in Iowa City when the COVID-19 pandemic closed its doors. The professional troupe then launched a $2 million capital campaign to renovate the Crescent Block Building on Iowa City’s downtown Ped Mall. The new performance space opened Feb. 4 to 20 with the world premiere of “Eden Prairie, 1971,” capturing three lives forever altered by war. In my review, I noted: “You could hear a pin drop during the Feb. 3 preview, and Friday’s opening night audience gave the production an immediate, well-earned standing ovation.”
Mirrorbox Theatre, a small professional troupe, is no longer on the move in search of a stage. It has landed at 1200 Ellis Blvd. NW, in Cedar Rapids’ historic Time Check neighborhood. The 1946 building has been stripped to the studs and renovated to create a flexible theater and actor and patron amenities. I missed the opening production of “Drive,” from Nov. 10 to 20, but did catch the silly fun of “Batman Returns Returns” on opening night, Dec. 14.
Leslie and Mark Nolte have renovated Riverside Theatre’s former North Gilbert Street home into The James Theater, as a performance venue and event incubator. Riverside Theatre and The James Theater now live in spectacular spaces that are a joy to visit and explore.
3. Orchestra Iowa opens centennial season in a blaze of glory.
With Brucemorchestra rained out in September, Orchestra Iowa delayed its centennial season opener to Oct. 8 and 9 in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. While I was terribly disappointed not to see Broadway star Melissa Errico’s “Sincerely, Sondheim” salute on the front lawn of Brucemore mansion in Cedar Rapids, the “Cultural Crossroads” concert created a burst of energy fitting for the occasion.
In my review, I said: “In my 40 years living and working in Cedar Rapids, I’ve never heard anything more virtuosic than world-renowned guest star Cho-Liang Lin’s blazing yet tender artistry on Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major. A Juilliard faculty member, the Grammy-nominated Lin has performed with the world’s major orchestras, and now, with Orchestra Iowa.
“What a mind-blowing way to ignite the candles for a yearlong celebration of 100 years of symphonic music.”
4. Patti LaBelle heats up the holidays at Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City.
The “Godmother of Soul” and queen of my disco daze brought a ’70s and ’80s hit parade to Hancher on Dec. 9, with one Christmas song tucked inside a 90-minute love-in with an audience full of fans on their feet, dancing, singing along, and shouting, “Go Patti, go Patti.”
I described the concert as “a celebration from beginning to end, bathed in red and green lights onstage and dazzling shiny satin attire on the star” and “a spectacular celebration of artistry wrapped in a loving embrace.”
5. “Mamma Mia!” is the name of the game at Theatre Cedar Rapids.
Theatre Cedar Rapids posted this message on Facebook following the July 31 final performance of “Mamma Mia!”
“We made history. Welcoming over 11,500 patrons, ‘Mamma Mia!’ is officially the best-attended show in TCR’s almost 100-year legacy. To achieve this honor, coming through a truly unprecedented time in this theater’s journey, fills us with immeasurable gratitude.”
The musical opened June 24 and ran for more than a month. I got to see it twice, and loved it both times. And it’s a script I’ve never really liked. The story always seemed contrived.
But TCR made a believer out of me, as noted in my review: “Finally, it all makes sense. All it took was a killer cast, a killer director, killer choreography, a killer orchestra, and killer scenery, lights and costumes. And beach balls. You can never have too many beach balls, or guys dancing in swim fins.
“Christopher Okiishi is such a smart director, always looking to amplify the story and present it in unexpected ways. He’s also a wonderful actor and musician, and this trifecta is written all over this production.
“Of course, having Janelle Lauer in the leading role of mamma Donna, you just can’t go wrong. She creates magic wherever she’s performing.”
6. Simon Estes shares journey and faith to open The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas virtual conference Oct. 13.
While it may seem self-serving to sing the praises of a Gazette-generated conference, any time you get to hear Iowa-born opera star Simon Estes speak is a pinnacle event. I’ve interviewed this internationally renowned UI and Juilliard graduate several times over the years, and his compelling story never ceases to amaze me.
Now 84 and living and teaching in his home state, Estes is the grandson of a slave who sold for $500 and the son of a coal-miner father who could neither read nor write. Yet his towering talent has taken him around the world, singing for royalty, presidents, popes, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and the Nobel Prize Committee. The Centerville native has performed in 84 of the world’s greatest opera houses, on stages around his home state and with 115 symphony orchestras.
7. Revival Theatre’s productions of “The Color Purple” and “Titanic” brings thrills and chills to Cedar Rapids stages.
This professional troupe based in Cedar Rapids never disappoints, but the company really outdid itself this year with two very different, spectacular productions. “The Color Purple” nearly peeled the paint off the walls at the intimate CSPS Hall in June and “Titanic” rang through the rafters at Theatre Cedar Rapids in September.
8. Alisabeth Von Presley is chosen as Iowa’s contestant on television’s “American Song Contest.”
Von Presley, who made it to the Hollywood rounds of “American Idol” in 2013, was selected as Iowa’s contestant on NBC-TV’s “American Song Contest,” which premiered March 21.
In announcing her selection, I noted: A colorful pop rocker known for her messages of body positivity, she said her competition song is “definitely a girl power anthem. It is pop, rock, inspirational, motivational — the kind of song you listen to when you want to get pumped up for something.”
She also wants to shake up the country’s perception of Iowa. “I’m looking forward to representing Iowa in a way that (viewers) are not expecting,” she said. “It’s fun to think of a pink-haired pop-rocker representing the Corn State. That juxtaposition is the most fitting metaphor for my life.”
She didn’t win the competition, but her original song, “Wonder,” has remained popular with fans and audiences long after the show wrapped up.
9. Goats clear the way for restoration planting at Brucemore, leaving smiles in their wake.
This was one of my most fun stories ever to report — not just in 2002. What a delight to drive through the historic estate and see the hungry hired hoofs either lying down on the job or munching on the invasive plants thriving in the sun after the 2020 derecho stripped so many trees from two acres of timber along Linden Drive SE.
The 45 goats, part of Goats on the Go Dubuque, came from Cox Springs Farm in rural Peosta, west of Dubuque. The public was welcome to observe the new grounds crew during their two-week stay in September, but fencing kept them at a safe distance.
“There are enough of them that you’ll see them in the timber,” David Janssen, Brucemore’s executive director, said. “But there will be no goat yoga. It’s not a petting zoo. They’re there to do a job, so we want to stay out of their way and make them work.”
“They’re very entertaining,” said Brett Seelman of Seelman Landscape Architecture in Cedar Rapids, heading up the historic estate’s landscape restoration. “It’s been incredible to watch how much joy they’ve brought.”
10. Two personal favs: Stargazing with my super-fan brother at TrekFest in Riverside and Judas Priest’s 50th anniversary tour stop in Moline, Ill.
After years of interviewing various “Star Trek“ cast members over the phone, I finally got to meet two in person on June 25: the Klingon Empire’s General Martok (J.G. Hertzler) and Chancellor Gowron (Robert O’Reilly). Both were hilarious, growling through fan photo shoots after the parade, and later, out of their makeup, serving as judges at the Trek-themed model contest, in which my brother Duane won a prize.
Then on Oct. 29, Duane and I trekked to Moline to see one of his favorite bands in action. His boss had given him two third-row center tickets to see Judas Priest at the Vibrant Arena (originally known as the Mark of the Quad Cities). The concert was fantastic, musically and visually. Fifty years of screaming hasn’t diminished Rob Halford’s voice. He still can pull back to lovely with soaring tenor tones. His wardrobe was sparkly splendid, and of course, he rode in on a Harley for the finale. Best of all, the language was completely clean through the whole show, to which my brother noted, “He’s a proper British gentleman.” This was a fitting bookend to the first concert I took Duane to at the Five Seasons Center (now the Alliant Energy PowerHouse) in Cedar Rapids — Judas Priest in 1984, and again in 1986.
And we have plenty to look forward to in 2023, as well.
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