- By gentleguide
- On Sat 06 Jan 2018
For those who have grown up here, Iowa has always been a special place. Playwright and composer Robert John Ford has lived and worked here in Iowa for years, and his observations have resulted in UTOPIA. Written with a keen eye and loving humor, UTOPIA presents sketches and songs sure to bring a knowing smile to audiences near and far.
“UTOPIA has been described as Forbidden Broadway meets The Capitol Steps meets The Music Man,” says Ford, “parodies of familiar (mostly) musical theatre songs that focus on some element of life in Iowa, performed as a revue by five actors. When I began writing plays and musicals in the late 1980’s I took the ‘write what you know’ advice to heart, and found many story ideas in my own Iowa backyard.”
“I developed some of those ideas into full-length musicals - most notably CAUCUS! THE MUSICAL and SIX-ON-SIX: THE MUSICAL, but over the years I collected many Iowa-related ideas that were intriguing but not meaty enough to be developed into full-length plays. In 2009, I realized I had enough ideas to create a series of unrelated sketches about Iowa, and UTOPIA (then called MY IOWAY) was born.”
UTOPIA has since gone through a number of different versions and productions. The upcoming presentation is version 5.0, and is being debuted in its new home of Mainframe Studios. As the state of Iowa and its people have changed and grown, so has the show.
Ford details how the show has evolved. “This is the first version of the show that is truly ‘all new’ - all previous versions have had at least a handful of duplicates from earlier versions. But with the all-new venue, we thought it was time for a truly all-new show.”
“We’ve learned many things over the years - with only two exceptions, the most successful sketches/songs have generally been four minutes or less in length. The audience can only handle about four political songs at most. Parodies work better than original songs. And musical theatre songs work better than pop songs. But Iowa culture has definitely changed as well since the first version - then we were proudly touting its blue state progressive status, and now we recognize we’re playing to an increasingly red-state audience.”
One of the people who has been through many of those changes is actress Mary Bricker, whose history with UTOPIA gives her a special perspective. “This is my fourth production of UTOPIA - I have had the good fortune to be a part of all four Des Moines-based production of the show (2010, 2011, 2015, and 2018). Every production presents a completely new and fun performance challenge.”
“In this production I play no less than 14 characters, many of whom sing in completely different voices! With all new material this time around we have ample opportunity to stretch in new directions. It’s especially fun to do so with a mix of returning and new cast members.”
Bricker is also excited to be a part of opening the new location at Mainframe, and not just because of the theatre possibilities. “Having the chance to participate in opening a brand-new performance venue is really an honor. Mainframe is a unique property, just as UTOPIA is a unique show. It’s especially great to be in a space that brings together Iowa artists from many different disciplines. Performance, musical, visual and graphic arts all in one place - I think it’s very good for our community on many levels.”
“It’s also a lovely performance space - intimate and inviting but sophisticated and contemporary at the same time. It’s going to be a wonderful home for Epic Stage Productions. Robert John Ford is truly one of the most creative, intelligent and visionary artists in Iowa, and I know he will have much to offer our community in this new venue!”
Ford has lots of hopes for the new space, involving UTOPIA and other shows for Epic Stage Productions in the future. UTOPIA is currently listed as having an “open-ended run”, beginning January 11. Ford has laid out a map going forward.
“With our permanent home in Mainframe, the plan is to run the show regularly - maybe two months of performances, then a month break, and then maybe another two months of performances, and so on. Given that all of our actors are in high demand and are interested in other theatre projects in town, we anticipate that eventually we will have at least two different casts (or some cross-over) to cover all performances.”
“But I also recognize that the Des Moines theatre audience isn’t yet ready to support a show for 2-3 performances each weekend year-round, so we intend to program in other shows throughout the year as well. For instance, in late May we’ll be presenting my play MY DINNER WITH ANDREW for a few weeks, a couple of other theatre groups in town are looking at using the space in June and September, and I hope to present another musical in late October.”
“Producing an original musical is always a risk and is very expensive; doing so while trying to develop a new performance space is borderline crazy! I’m a one-man operation, and while I’ve done bigger musical projects in the past, the combination of opening a new show and a new venue at the same time has proven to be a much bigger challenge than I imagined. The success of the new venue will be largely dependent on the early support of the community, so I hope Des Moines audiences will recognize the value of having this new performance space in the city and come out to support it by attending the January performances of UTOPIA.”
Ultimately, Ford wants to make this celebration of Iowa and its people a consistent part of the landscape here. “My goal is to make UTOPIA the signature theatre show in Des Moines (similar to other well-known shows associated with their origin cities) - the show that locals know is playing regularly, the show they can bring their friends to or coworkers or out-of-town visitors to, the show that they know is constantly changing and warrants repeat viewings.”
The all-new version of UTOPIA by Epic Stage Productions opens January 11 at Mainframe Studio Theatre on Keo Way in Des Moines. Performances will be Thursdays through Sundays. Tickets are available through the Epic Stage Productions website and through Midwestix.com.