Jay Berkow and ensemble members in The Music Man

When people are asked what they think of when thinking about Iowa, they mention the following in no particular order: corn, Grant Wood, corn, Field of Dreams, corn, Hawkeyes, corn, Bruce … um … Caitlyn Jenner, corn, pork, corn , and the final answer – Meredith Willson. A famous son from Mason City, Willson is best known for writing and composing the uniquely American musical-theatre classic The Music Man.

Erik Wilson, Alexander Toth, and Laurie Bawden in The Tender Land

It's 86 degrees on a humid Saturday evening in June, and sitting in Rock Island's Lincoln Park, it's easy to reflect upon a gold and pink summer sun setting in the west. To the south, the lights have just clicked on the basketball courts as a neighborhood pick-up game is in full swing. To the north, a young couple push their giggling toddler on the swings of the playground. And to the east, the lights are dimming on the Italian-Renaissance-inspired structure enveloped in the arms of the giant oaks as another evening of theatre in the park is set to begin.

As a child of the '60s and '70s, I favored rock groups such as Kansas. My older sister Shari loved pop music. For many kids, music was a way to escape the turmoil of those decades, and for Shari, it meant listening to Bobby Sherman or folk singer John Denver. Being the youngest, I sometimes teased her about the lameness of her music – and still do, for that matter. However, even for a precocious little brother, the music of Denver always struck a chord of enlightenment in my heart, and that's exactly what happened again at the Timber Lake Playhouse's opening-night performance of Almost Heaven: Songs of John Denver.

"There's a hole in the world like a great black pit, and it's filled with people who are filled with shit. And the vermin of the world inhabit it, and it goes by the name of London."

No lyrics better summed up the setting for a musical than these particular lines from Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and Augustana College's latest production delivers in filling the Potter Theatre with the polluted gloom and human hell that was 1840s London.

Jeremy Mahr in The Complete Word of God (abridged)In the beginning, Brent Tubbs directed a play. And the production was without form and void; darkness was upon the face of the show. And the spirit of Brent moved upon the three-person cast. And Brent said, “Let there be humor,” and there was laughter. And Brent heard the giggles, and it was good. And Brent said, “Behold, I have provided everything necessary for entertainment.” And he knew that it was heavenly … even though yours truly, on Saturday, missed out on several probably heavenly scenes.

Jennifer Poarch, Brad Hauskins, Tristan Layne Tapscott, Jeff Haffner, Carrie SaLoutos, and Tom Walljasper in Shear MadnessOur audience hadn't even realized the play had started.

The continually in-motion and always entertaining Bootleggers had barely concluded their pre-show when the evening's featured performance quietly began. As patrons sipped their after-dinner coffees, and with the house lights fully lit, the first characters in the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's production of Shear Madness made their way onstage and – delivering an outlandish and amusing show-before-the-show – gave our crowd some insight into what sort of over-the-top, wacky comedy we were about to see. Between cast members getting their hair washed and blow-dried in rhythm to classic pop music to the infinite number of entrances and exits, it was clear that this was going to be one wild and colorful ride.

Angela Elliott, Michael Carron, Abby Van Gerpen, Laila Haley, Joshua Pride, Erin Churchill, and Jordan McGinnis in The Big Meal, photo courtesy of Jessica Sheridan and Shared Light PhotographyBefore seeing Saturday's production of The Big Meal, my wife, youngest son, and I decided to grab supper. I wanted pizza, but my wife wanted to try something different, so we landed at a little restaurant just a few blocks east of the theatre. As we ate our hummus and falafel, we chatted about family, work, the future, and life in general. Little did we know that our simple meal together would be an almost mirrored precursor to what we were about to witness on stage.

Jake Walker, Stephanie Burrough, Chris Sanders-Ring, and Kitty Israel in Love's Labour's LostWhile waiting for the Prenzie Players' Thursday-night dress rehearsal of the William Shakespeare comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost to begin, I realized it had been a long time since I had seen one of the Bard of Avon’s plays performed live. I pondered whether I would be able to follow the plot and comprehend the dialogue. I worried that the show might be too stuffy for my unrefined sense of theatre. “Holy crap, I'm supposed to write a review – what if I don’t get it?” Yet as the show began, the Prenzies put my neuroses to rest very quickly.

Patrick Beasley and Emily Stokes in PhantomLet’s get this out of the way: In case you're attending to specifically hear “Music of the Night” or other well-known tunes, the current production of the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's Phantom is not Andrew Lloyd Webber's more famous version of the same story. Comparing Phantom to Webber's The Phantom of the Opera is like comparing a croissant to an éclair. Both are French, textured, and rich with flavor, but also two totally different experiences.

Linda Ruebling, Brant Peitersen, Tom Vaccaro, Anthony Natarelli, Mike Kelly, Mark Ruebling, Chris Tracy, Rocky Kampling, Aaron Lord, and Kyle Jecklin in Big Rock Candy ChristmasAt a time when current events make the world seem very dark and sick, the holidays remind us to reminisce with old friends, break out the carols, and bake a batch of Grandma's legendary cookies. One recipe to such a cruel world can be found in the District Theatre's current production Big Rock Candy Christmas. A sequel to last year's Big Rock Candy Mountain, this Christmas-flavored chapter brings back the same characters from the original with a new mission, new music, and even a few new faces.

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