BWW Review: SILENT SKY at Des Moines Playhouse: Keep Looking Up
Growing up, I was fascinated with space. I loved looking up and learning about the stars. I still find myself occasionally looking up at the beauty of the stars. Watching Lauren Gunderson's "Silent Sky" at the Des Moines Playhouse, reminded me of that fascination I had as a kid. The show did that by telling an amazing story, and accenting it with beautiful music and images.
If you are unfamiliar with "Silent Sky" as I was last night, it tells the story of Astronomer Henrietta Leavitt. She worked as a "computer" at the Harvard College Conservatory. With the show taking place in 1901 science was still looked at as a man's field, even though women were making the discoveries that influenced how we study the stars to this day. Henrietta goes to the conservatory to study the stars, but is told she would be looking at images taken and labeling the stars. The labeling system they were using was discovered by one of her colleagues, Annie Cannon. As the show continues on we see that in spite of the restrictions Henrietta and her colleagues had, they continued their study of the stars and we see how their studies influenced the way we look at the stars today.
One of my favorite technical elements of the show was the music composed by Mark Toebben. There was a familiarity to the music he composed that I couldn't quite place from the beginning of the show. Part way through Act 1 I realized the reason it was so familiar, was that it reminded me of the Imax films and Planetarium shows I had seen about space at the Science Center of Iowa. Once I came to that realization, I appreciate what was being done with the music and was able to appreciate the beauty it contributed to the show.
The other technical element that stood out to me in the show was the projections that were incorporated as part of Nicholas Amundson's set. I appreciated that the projections took us each place Henrietta was going, from outside her hometown church, to the observatory, to the sea. But the projections didn't stop there. The projections also became a visual aid at times showing us as an audience what Henrietta and her colleges were seeing. There were other projections used, and when combined with the music, made for some awe inspiring moments.
While the music and projections did a beautiful job of transporting the audience to the world of the show, it was the performances in the show that had the audience mesmerized. While these characters may have lived during the turn of the last century, I found each of them to still be relatable today. With this being an ensemble show, with a very strong ensemble of actors it is hard to talk about the performances without talking about each of them.
There is one person who is onstage for almost the entire show, and that is Shelby Jensen as Henrietta Leavitt. She brought an eagerness to the character from the top of the show that pulls the audience in, and keeps them engaged through the entire show. The moment of hers that impacted me the most was when her character is speaking with her sister Margaret Leavitt and realizes that similar to music, the stars were pulsing like beats in music.
"Silent Sky" is a show for the dreamer in each of us. Every aspect of the show encourages the audience to continue looking up. Performances continue at Des Moines Playhouse through June 16. To find out more information about Silent Sky, or the Des Moines Playhouse, visit https://www.dmplayhouse.com/