Eastern Iowa is so full of stellar arts and entertainment events that trying to choose just 10 is nearly impossible. So I’ve tacked on a few more that rose to the top of shows I saw in 2018.
1. EMANUEL AX: April 12 to 15, 2018
The world’s foremost pianist gave a gift of unprecedented proportions to Orchestra Iowa when he presented a free four-day free residency in Eastern Iowa. Not only did Ax hold more than 1,000 middle school students spellbound for a morning concert and conversation at the Paramount Theatre (repeated in the afternoon), he also performed with Orchestra Iowa in Masterworks concerts at the Paramount and the Solon Center for the Arts; headlined a gala fundraiser for the Orchestra at the DoubleTree by Hilton Cedar Rapids Convention Center in Cedar Rapids; spoke and performed for Orchestra board members at Coe College; and in Iowa City, performed at a casual event in Hancher’s Stanley Cafe, conducted a master class at the University of Iowa’s Voxman Recital Hall and performed at the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital. “The gift he’s giving this community is staggering,” Tim Hankewich, the orchestra’s artistic director, said in announcing the event, noting that the fee Ax waived would run “in the six figures.”
2. KRISTIN CHENOWETH: Dec. 31, 2018
Hancher Auditorium, Iowa City. This Tony- and Emmy-winning star of stage, television and film rang in 2019 in style during Hancher’s New Year’s Eve gala, with 90 minutes of music from theater, American Songbook standards and previews of her upcoming album. With her elegance and charm, it’s easy to see why this Glinda the Good Witch from “Wicked” is so popular.
3. “TURANDOT”: Jan. 19 and 21, 2018
Paramount Theatre, Cedar Rapids. The Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre pulled out all the stops to present a lavish production of Puccini’s final opera. Opulent costumes and scenery surrounded stellar voices onstage to celebrate the organization’s 20th season. Cedar Rapids’ revered soprano Karla Goettel, who was in the audience opening night, deemed the production “a historic event for the Paramount Theatre,” calling Rebecca Nash in the title role “the best soprano” she’s ever heard on that stage. Ta’u Pupu’a of New York — by way of Tonga, Utah, the NFL and Juilliard — was every inch her match in bearing and voice, especially on the haunting tenor aria “Nessun dorma.”
4. “MY FAIR LADY”: Sept. 14 to Oct. 6, 2018
Theatre Cedar Rapids. This resplendent musical opened TCR’s 85th season in high-kicking style. Angela Billman and Aaron Murphy were a perfect pairing as Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins, surrounded by an equally wonderful cast and crew. The production was as “loverly” to see as it was to hear, with so much time and attention to detail poured into the massive scenery and glorious costumes. I could have watched this show dance all night.
5. NEWBO EVOLVE: Aug. 3 to 5, 2018
Cedar Rapids. This won’t be a popular event to cite, giving its epic mismanagement. But I loved every event I covered or attended, from discussions by fashion stylist Carson Kressley, fashion designer Christian Siriano and Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon to main stage concerts by Grammy winners Kelly Clarkson and Maroon 5 in a wonderful new outdoor NewBo riverside venue. Strolling through the district after the Maroon 5 concert reminded me of being in Louisville’s Fourth Street Live! which closes this busy street to traffic for national concerts and events that draw throngs of music, dining and shopping lovers to the heart of the city. If only ...
6. KESHA CONCERT: Nov. 2, 2018
U.S. Cellular Center, Cedar Rapids. U.S. Cellular threw a 30th birthday party for 6,000 friends, with Kesha igniting the candles. The wireless carrier was celebrating 30 years of offering service in Cedar Rapids, by bringing in the award-winning pop rocker for a free concert full of hits, pulse-pounding beats, glitter, streamers and confetti.
7. REVIVAL THEATRE COMPANY: “THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY”: May 31 to June 3, 2018
Dows Fine Arts Center, Coe College, Cedar Rapids. I hated pretty much everything about the movie, but loved absolutely everything about Revival Theatre’s staging of the musical, from the brilliant transforming scenic, lighting and projections designs to the dazzling performances about a whirlwind forbidden romance in rural Iowa, followed by a lifetime of “what-ifs.”
8. BRIAN STOKES MITCHELL CONCERT: March 28, 2018
Hancher Auditorium, Iowa City. Stage and screen star Brian Stokes Mitchell shared the spotlight with the University of Iowa Symphony Orchestra in a concert that was perfect in every way, showing how much a master storyteller can convey through song. If you missed this concert — or just want to hear him again — he’s teaming up with Broadway star Megan Hilty and the Des Moines Symphony on May 11, 2019, at the Des Moines Civic Center.
9. “APPLES IN WINTER”: March 2 to 18, 2018
Riverside Theatre, Iowa City. Marquetta Senters gave a shattering performance in an award-winning one-person play about a mother fulfilling her son’s request to have her apple pie be the last thing he savors before his execution. Former Iowa City resident Jennifer Fawcett’s new drama began as a one-page proposal that won the coveted 2015 Smith Prize for Political Theatre from the National New Play Network. Senters returns to the role at the Old Creamery Theatre in Amana from July 18 to 28, 2019.
10. “NOISES OFF”: March 30 to May 6, 2018
Giving Tree Theater, Marion. My younger brother, who would rather do just about anything else than attend a play, declared this production to be the best show he’d ever seen. With a dotty Dotty, a babbling Brooke, a bungling burglar and a director at the end of his rope in staging a play within a play, sardines weren’t the only things to go flying during the deafening comedy of “Noises Off.” Impeccable slapstick timing resulted in sidesplitting laughter.
The national tour of the revamped, rejuvenated “Les Miserables” at Hancher Auditorium; “Rotten Eggnog,” an edgy holiday romp through hardships and friendship, at Riverside Theatre; Orchestra Iowa’s sparkling Holiday Spectacular at the Paramount Theatre; City Circle’s riveting production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime”; the eye-popping national tour of “Disney’s Aladdin” at the Des Moines Civic Center; performance artist extraordinaire Taylor Mac at Hancher; the Edward Hopper exhibition at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, on loan from the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, in exchange for Grant Wood pieces sent from Cedar Rapids for the Whitney’s Wood retrospective; and Revival Theatre Company’s artistically elegant “Sunday in the Park with George.”
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