by David Pierce
Iowa City – Middleville is a place where nothing out of the ordinary happens. Where the people and houses and clothes are all the same. Nothing bad ever happens. Nothing good ever happens. Every day is like the rest, until a group of kids decide that it’s not bad to try for more than the ordinary. That’s the set-up for Middleville, a Combined Efforts production running the weekend of April 8th at Montgomery Hall on the Johnson County Fairgrounds.
This is a very sweet, very charming production. Indeed, charming may be the best way to describe the experience of seeing this show. As an example of that, let me talk about something I don’t think I’ve ever talked about before in a review: the program. Rather than your standard booklet-sized program filled with bios, director’s notes, ads, and theatre promotion, the Middleville program is larger and set up as a community directory. Every locale in the play has a page or a portion of a page, mentioning what goes on there and the people we will meet in that locale. Reading the directory draws the audience into the atmosphere and mindset of the play before the play even begins. It was an incredibly imaginative use of something audience goers usually take for granted, and I loved it.
Middleville opens with some narration from City Spokesperson Ken Gayley, who will appear here and there throughout the production to guide us and add his thoughts on what’s going on. After a song from the entire cast, we move into a series of vignettes set in the locations outlined in the community directory. The vignettes all follow the same pattern: A young person (or group of young people) try to expand themselves, to be more than what they’ve always been. An adult (or group of adults) respond by telling the young person the importance of settling, of just being average, ending with a sentence along the lines of ‘Can you imagine?’. The young person then does just that, imagining how wonderful it would be if they followed their dreams. The Middleville dancers come out, acting out the dream the young person is having.
The sameness of these vignettes adds to the feeling of sameness about the town. They’re all fun, but the best may have been the sequence in the school where a group of students are putting on a play about the founding of Middleville. The re-enactment of the flooding of the original Middleville settlement is hilarious. Everyone shines in this sequence, especially Valerie Davine Bills as Miss Levelbest, the teacher and Chase Horning, the enthusiastic soloist.
The series of vignettes end with the appearance of a stranger. (The stranger, by the way, bears a strong resemblance to the City Spokesperson.) After trying, but failing, to have the special at the diner – nothing, after all, is special in Middleville – he decides to reward the two young people who work at the diner. To that end, he sends them a painting to be shared with the children of Middleville, a painting his father gave him as a young man. Although he had lost the painting during the war, he reacquired it just as it was about to be stolen by a family of criminals. The criminals, of course, still want the painting.
This leads us into a portion of the play that actually has a through storyline. This set up (vignettes that could have been done in any order followed by through storyline) works very well. The rest of the place is a series of slapstick incidents where the criminals try to retrieve the painting and the children of Middleville stop them, eventually driving them off. It’s an extremely fun sequence, and the criminals, led by an outstanding Erik Schneider with equally strong performances from Kalvin Goodlaxson, Iver Hovet, and Cory Rew are another highlight of the show. The show ends with not just order restored to the town, but with hopes, dreams, and the desire to transcend the ordinary restored to the town.
There’s also entertainment during the intermission, when the criminals along with several others (including Bob Shaffer, who plays the father of all the criminals) perform a series of songs, two from the Beatles, two from the Everly Brothers. I loved the singing and found myself singing along with them.
Indeed, I loved it describes my feelings about the whole production. The set is simple and plain. Not drab, mind you. Drab would stand out, and the people and town of Middleville do not stand out. The set is framed on each side by a set of row houses, all painted with plain and simple colors, no distinguishing characteristics to them. The costumes are the same way. The residents of Middleville are outfitted in costumes of similar style and color, which serves with the set to drive home the sameness and the plainness of the town. Only the criminals are dressed in a manner that would stand out in the town. It’s really good costume work on the part of Heather Johnson.
This is a large cast, nearly 60 people, filled with actors, singers, dancers, and even a hula-hoopist. Hula-hooper. Whatever. It’s a lot of people, but director Brian Tanner manages the group in such a manner that we in the audience never feel overwhelmed by the number of people. The pacing of the show is strong, the scene changes effective. Many of the set changes are marked by the cast walking through ‘town’ in front of the set, cheerfully greeting each other and talking about the weather. It’s the sort of strong directorial work you expect from Tanner.
I only have one complaint about the production. Act I runs for an hour. Act II runs for fifteen minutes. The disparity between the two is too large, particularly since Act I runs through three very natural breakpoints. It could have been split so that all the vignettes were in Act I and the through story in Act II. You do that by ending Act I with the kids deciding to all meet together and opening Act II with that meeting.
But that’s a quibble. The disparity between the acts doesn’t take away any of the enjoyment of the production. This is a cast and crew having a great time and, as in all good theatrical productions, that positive energy passes back to the audience, who in return passes it back to the cast and crew, creating the positive feedback loop that only live theatre has to offer. I can’t recommend this show highly enough. I smiled the whole time and I’m betting If you saw it, you did too.