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Think About Your Life: 'Pippin' at Towson University

SHOW INFORMATION: Through April 5. Fri and Sat at 8PM, Sat at 2PM.  Tickets $2 students/$5 general.  In the studio theatre of the Fine Arts building on the campus of Towson University.

◊◊◊◊ out of five.  2 hours, including intermission.  Adult language, sexual themes, stylized violence and brief partial nudity.

I'm about to show my age here.  I knew about Stephen Schwartz decades before Wicked, though my first introduction to him was not his other classic, Godspell, but a really cool looking purple record album called Pippin.  As my family will grudgingly tell you, I played that thing so much that I literally wore the vinyl out on not one, but two copies!  My CD is doing just fine, thank you.  There is not a bad song in the score (ok, "Prayer for a Duck" is marginal, but not bad).  And for awhile, Pippin was everywhere – every school, college, community theatre and beyond did it, and the vast majority were influenced by (if not downright copies of) the Bob Fosse classic staging.  With an admittedly thin book, Pippin is ripe for conceptualization; a simple coming of age story wouldn't be that exciting.  And Pippin has gone the way of so many shows, remembered but not performed much.  So, in a way, it comes as somewhat of a surprise that this week I'll be attending two different productions of the show!  The first, which opened last night at Towson University, will be extremely hard to beat.  With a creative, well-fitting concept, deft, thoughtful direction, and superb musical styling, this Pippin may be one of the best I've seen, including two versions I have personally been involved with!

This completely student-run production (with faculty advising by Daniel Ettinger and Diane Smith Sadake) is helmed by Ryan Haase (TU's Urinetown and The Who's Tommy).  Mr. Haase has clearly learned a lot during his tenure at the university, because quite honestly, his direction is as good as or better than many beloved veteran directors I've had to review.  The entire production hums with a youthful but focused energy, and clearly every single person on stage, in the band and backstage is on the same page, with complete understanding of what he is trying to accomplish.  The road company of Camelot could use his services…  It is also abundantly clear that he is/has been an actor, because he truly understands the complex duality of the script, which has the "Players" alternately as the characters in the story of Pippin and as a company of actors performing for the audience.  But what is truly the hallmark of this production is the amazingly tight fit of his concept, which is basically that the troupe of actors are automatons, ruled by the machinery of the world (wheel cogs figure prominently in Mr. Haase's set design).  The Leading Player orchestrates the action, but it is carried out with a frightening air of mechanism over humanity.  Very high concept for a show about that which makes us human – the search for complete fulfillment and sexual, physical and spiritual growth.  And this concept isn't shoe-horned in, complete with gaps in logic; no, this production carries it through in every single aspect of its presentation.  Watching the ensemble move like scary robotic mannequins gives me goose bumps at the memory.  And it is played sometimes for laughs, sometimes for truth (especially the war scenes), but mostly to really highlight those human elements (especially in act two, when Pippin finds love).

Like any good director, Mr. Haase has surrounded himself with a very able team to bring his vision to the stage.  While he designed the setting (a few wheel cogs, black and white curtains and several chairs) and the costumes (a curious mix of Cabaret-revival chic, Chicago-revival sexiness and well-placed Victorian anachronisms), his lighting designer, James Johnson has followed the concept well, offering only glimmers of color, and even then they seem fake compared to the otherwise cold pallet he works from.  The hair and makeup designers, Brittany Morris and Emily Levin also deserve recognition, for their contribution is enormous and equal parts humor and sheer terror.

His choreographer, Rachel Beiswenger has done a magnificent job in creating movement that fits the concept, the abilities of her company and highlighting the special skills of others.  In a show that is identified by its original dancing and choreographer, it is amazing how she uses such focus that there isn't huge dancing all the time, but very stylized movement, such as "War is a Science" and "Glory."  There are still some bigger numbers, "Magic to Do" and "With You" come readily to mind.  The latter also features some lovely en point ballet.  Equally impressive is the musical direction of R. Alex Kliner, who has assembled a small, but excellent band, and has spruced up the arrangements to have a more modern feel – none of it sounds very seventies, which is a good thing.  The same can be said for the vocal arrangements, all the more important considering that there are only five men in a cast of 18.

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James was first bitten by the theatre bug at the tender young age of 11, when, at the last minute, he was called upon to replace a classmate who, 42nd STREET-like, broke his leg, in a play, of all things, about the skeletal system! It was a trip to New York with his high school drama teacher to see Angela Lansbury in MAME that sealed his fate. As an actor, favorite roles include Sheridan Whiteside in THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, Potiphar in JOSEPH..., Col. Pickering in MY FAIR LADY, and Sancho Panza?s ass in MAN OF LA MANCHA. After spending a summer feeling very conflicted playing both an apostle AND a high priest in JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, James' theatre career took a turn toward direction and design, including such varied productions as THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, LOST IN YONKERS, GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER and GRAND HOTEL, SIDE SHOW, THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD and SWEENEY TODD. James holds a Bachelor's degree in English from Towson University, with additional course work in journalism, dramaturgy, scenic design and stage direction. He is living proof that you can be a devout Sondheim fan AND love MAMMA MIA!

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