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Home / REVIEW: ‘The Suffragist’ makes dramatic debut in Cedar Falls
CEDAR FALLS — The harrowing moments of “The Suffragist” will suck away viewers’ breath. The hilarious moments mercifully will let them breathe. The drama in between is captivating.
This counterpoint makes the new musical sing. Eastern Iowa audiences have just a few world premiere performances in which to listen and learn about the fight for women’s right to vote, waged in the late 19th- and early 20th centuries.
The show, with deep area ties, opened Friday and continues with 2 and 7 p.m. curtains Saturday and a 2 p.m. matinee Sunday at Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center on the University of Norther Iowa campus in Cedar Falls. Thursday’s final dress rehearsal was ready for an audience.
With music by award-winning composer and executive producer Nancy Hill Cobb of Hiawatha and lyrics and script by nationally recognized theater artist Cavan Hallman of Cedar Rapids, this debut production is Broadway quality — with a boost from Broadway performers Nancy Opel, Cathryn Wake and Joel Waggoner, along with outstanding local talent.
The fast-paced action — orchestrated by New York-based director Rachel Klein — moves among versatile settings from New York scenic designer Ann Beyersdorfer, featuring trestle framework and black-and-white vintage scenes and headlines projected on the back screen. All of this is enhanced by vivid lighting from Eric Lange, head of UNI’s theater department.
The orchestral overture encompasses the versatility of Cobb’s musical score, moving fluidly between the opening ominous tones of the gathering storm to joyous, buoyant 1920s beats and a lush, sweeping melody that’s very Broadway, before returning to a driving pulse as the curtain rises.
The story begins in a Quaker meetinghouse, where a young, sheltered Alice Paul is explaining why she needs to leave her New Jersey home and travel to London to expand her academic education, as well as learn more about the English suffrage movement.
Soon, the young pacifist gets swept up in the British scene that turns violent, landing her and the other suffragists in jail, where they are tortured.
Wake is astonishing as the fiery Alice Paul — tiny in stature but larger-than-life as she champions the cause for which Paul was willing to suffer and lay down her life, if needed.
Her cast bio notes that Wake made her Broadway debut in 2016 in the original cast of “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812,” and specializes in originating characters.
She sinks her teeth into Paul’s militant ardor, injecting intensity into her every scene. She is dynamite vocally, as well, especially in the second act, as Paul declares: “We will not be silent. Our silence will be an instrument of war.”
But even standing silent in front of the White House, holding signs critical of President Woodrow Wilson’s lack of support for voting equality, she and her followers are sent to jail. Especially soul-crushing is the scene depicting the torture Paul suffered there.
Her youth and passion vex the older, more somber suffrage leader, Carrie Chapman Catt. The stoic Catt, who grew up in Iowa, is portrayed with expert reserve by Opel, who brings to this performance a string of Broadway and television credits, as well as a Tony nomination for “Urinetown.”
Catt fears Paul’s radical tactics will derail their cause. She prefers a less off-putting approach — even though she does give President Wilson a piece of her mind before turning on her heel.
Wilson’s character, played by another seasoned pro, Joel Waggoner, is a stroke of genius from scriptwriter Hallman. If a president is going to tap dance around issues, why not have him tap dance through the show? And Waggoner is a very good tapper. The buffoonery he imbues in Wilson is delightful through and through.
Paul and Catt are the stars, but they aren’t alone in their fight. They are buoyed by confidants and colleagues at every step. UNI student Dani Schmaltz plays Lucy Burns, who encourages and fires up Paul, while Cedar Rapids vocal royalty Karla Goettel plays Catt’s friend Anna Howard Shaw, who serves as a bridge between Paul and Catt’s roiling waters.
Marjorie Gast, a UNI alum and frequent leading performer on Eastern Iowa stages, brings a bold shimmer to Inez Milholland, a high-society diva with the money Paul needs to further her cause.
Waterloo native MaKayla McDonald, now an operatic artist based in Brooklyn, N.Y, gets to show off her astonishing vocals in the show. She embodies social activist Ida B. Wells, but also gives voice to the Black women who were not invited to the white suffragists’ table, and were otherwise disenfranchised.
Again, Hallman has done a masterful job of creating dialogue that not only mirrors the causes of the past, but relates them to the current conflicts 100 years into the future.
The vocals and orchestra, under the direction of UNI professor emeritus Rebecca Burkhardt, are superb, and the outstanding costumes and choreography bring cohesive qualities to the stage picture.
This is a triumphant launch for this new show — one that deserves more productions, more interpretations and more audiences to experience an artistic view of a chapter of history that needs to be remembered and honored.
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