Riverside Theatre opens 30th season


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Imagine two friends sitting around brainstorming ideas for a new musical. Now imagine these two are on stage, in front of an audience, breaking out into song and dance about making that same conversation in a scene in the musical they are writing.

That is the case with [title of show]. Opening with the lyrics, "A, D, D, D, D, F sharp, A, will be the first notes of our show," the audience is in on the production's creative process in the first seconds of the performance.

Characters Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell use comedic melodies and animated jazzy dance moves to display the hopes of creating an entertaining show that will please audiences, the fears of harsh critics, and the excitement of performing.

Iowa City audiences can catch [title of show] at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Riverside Theatre, 213 N. Gilbert St. The musical will run through Oct. 3 with Thursday, Friday, and Saturday shows at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday shows at 2 p.m. Admission ranges from $12 to $28, with a $12 student rush 20 minutes before the performance. [title of show] is the first production of Riverside Theatre's 30th season.

The show has a cast of four characters, simple costumes such as bowling shirts and shorts, and basic set design. Those elements are not as important as the ideas that develop throughout the acts, actors said.

"It's about working on something you love and the process as it goes through the stages to become a professional show," said actor Kristen Behrendt, a female lead in the musical. "You have to write what you want and make it what you want, but as it goes through stages, people will ask you to make changes, and you have to stay true to your work."

One of the cast's favorite songs, "Die Vampire, Die," expresses what she said.

The song's performance takes place at the end of the first act and is a full cast ensemble piece. The vampires, which the lyrics explain "is any person or thought or feeling that stands between you and your creative self-expression," are the enemies of these artists.

The ensemble number is not only favored by the cast but is also the most challenging piece in the musical. It is full of fast-paced, high-energy choreography. The moves are an homage to other musical-theater numbers and even draw inspiration from such icons as Michael Jackson.

"I love the message of it which is just sort of about killing your own demons and the desire to be an artist, but it's said in a very non-preachy way," lead actor and choreographer Patrick DuLaney said.

Riverside's cofounder Ron Clark calls the choreography in [title of show] fresh. It's more of a dance-crew style than that of classic musical theater, he said.

"I think people are going to be very impressed with the choreographic intelligence and physical ability of the company," he said.

The seasoned actors have become close during the rehearsals. That the story is about people who are close friends helped the cast members bond quickly.

"The show is about four very funny, dynamic people, and the people in the cast are just like that," said Behrendt, who plays Heidi. "We've become friends, and we have fun together and make each other laugh."

Another aspect that is special to the cast and director is how the story resonates with their individual journeys through the theater world.

It is appropriate that the 30th season of the Riverside Theatre begins with [title of show], because it is similar to the way that the founders of the theater began.

"Thirty years ago, we had no place to work," Clark said. "So we thought, 'Let's create our own vehicle,' and the three of us put our heads together and just thought, 'Let's start our own theater.' "

Behrendt, an actor who has performed in shows from Broadway to Chicago to the University of Iowa's Summer Rep, also feels a connection to the musical's message and the journey of her character in [title of show].

"It is about artists, and we are artists and have all had a lot of experience," she said. "There are a lot of 'aha' moments. It just happens that [my character's story] is incredibly similar to my career when I was an actress in New York."

Both Behrendt and DuLaney have performed for large crowds, but they said there is something unique about being in a smaller atmosphere such as Riverside's and working in the arts in Iowa City.

"I love the intimacy of that space," DuLaney said. "Every single sort of nuance that we do gets picked up by the audience, and I very much prefer performing for a small house than a big house."

Behrendt agreed.

"The connection between the performer and audience is built right into the space," she said. "I'm sure [title of show] was great on Broadway, but it's hard to picture in a big theater. It fits so well in a small intimate space because it draws the audience into the lives of the characters."

Clark is thankful to have talent such as Behrendt's and DuLaney's in the Iowa City area to enhance the quality of the theater.

"To have a community that supports a professional theater company [like us] in a town this size is pretty remarkable," he said.

The Daily Iowan sat down with Riverside Theatre cofounder Jody Hovland to discuss its 30th season as a professional theater in Iowa City.

Daily Iowan: How has Riverside managed to stay open for 30 years?

Jody Hovland: Thirty years is definitely something to celebrate — especially when the average life of a professional theater is under five years. Riverside has endured by working hard, staying nimble, and striving to produce top-notch theater that engages audiences and artists alike. We also deeply value our connections to this community, without whose generosity we simply wouldn't exist.

DI: What makes Riverside unique?

Hovland: Riverside Theatre is professional. Our artists — whether they permanently reside in Iowa City, Kansas City, Chicago, or New York — are our greatest treasure. We hope Riverside continues to provide them with an artistic home where they are able to do work that is fresh, brave, and entertaining.

DI: How did you choose the productions for this year?

Hovland: We're always reading plays, seeing plays, and taking stock of what theaters around the country are producing. We talk to friends at other theaters, we receive suggestions from patrons who see plays in other cities. In the end, we choose plays that excite us as artists — because if we're passionate about the work, we believe that translates into audience engagement as well.

DI: Is there a general theme to the productions for this season?

Hovland: Our season-opener, the Broadway musical [title of show], definitely brings back memories of getting Riverside Theatre off the ground 30 years ago. The play, about two "nobodies" who decide to write a completely original musical, speaks to anyone who has ever pursued a creative "longshot" — so it really resonated with us, and seemed like a perfect launch for this anniversary season.

DI: How did you begin working with Working Group Theatre?

Hovland: We've been working with Working Group Theatre founders Sean Lewis, Jennifer Fawcett, and Martin Andrews as individual artists for several years. Their interest, as 30-somethings, in claiming Iowa City as their artistic home base is very exciting to us. We were anxious to explore collaborative possibilities, including this opportunity to forge an "in residence" presence at Riverside.

DI: What makes Working Group Theatre special or exciting for this season?

Hovland: Here you have a professional theater of 30 years hand-in-hand with a brand-new professional company — now that's exciting. Working Group's voices are original and bold; we expect sparks to fly.

DI: Are there any returning events?

Hovland: We're producing a newly edited version of last season's sellout show, The Tag Sale Project, the adventures of five friends and a yard sale. Written by playwright-actor Maggie Conroy, we've slipped in another three performances during Thanksgiving weekend — the perfect holiday dessert.

DI: What are the events Riverside is most excited about for the year?

Hovland: Our production of Arthur Miller's family drama, All My Sons, is the centerpiece of our 30th-anniversary season and a project we're deeply excited about. The company will feature many longtime associates, including Mark Hunter as director, and Tim Budd, Kristy Hartsgrove, and Martin Andrews as actors. Ron Clark and I, both cofounders of the theater, will play Joe and Kate Keller.

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