BWW Reviews: Highland Park Â"PippinÂ" Is Very Well Danced and Sung, Pretty Well Acted
Stephen Schwartz, one of the most popular Broadway composer-lyricists of the last 40 years, is riding high these days, with the continued mega-success of "Wicked," a late-career surprise for a guy who made his first big impact when he was just out of college in the very early 1970s. There's a revival of his "Godspell" playing on Broadway right now, directly adjacent to where "Wicked" is still selling out after 8 years, and two rival revivals of "Pippin" have been vying for Main Stem viability in recent months.
Here in Chicago, we had a re-working of "Working" last spring, in a major production at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, and a Schwartz career retrospective revue called "Snapshots" premiered at the Northlight Theatre in Skokie last fall. Schwartz himself was in town for both productions, rumored to be in love with our Chicago acting scene.
The 1972 Bob Fosse dance spectacle and play-within-a-play "Pippin" (which produced a legendary Motown Records cast album, no less) opened in Lakeview this past October, courtesy of the Bohemian Theatre Ensemble. And now we have a "Pippin" for the north lakeshore, as The Music Theatre Company of Highland Park has mounted an enjoyable revival of its own, opening last weekend and running through May 6, 2012.
Directed and choreographed by the company's founder and artistic director, Jessica Redish (how many hats IS that?), and music-directed by her "Merrily We Roll Along" partner, Ian Weinberger (their production of that problematic Stephen Sondheim show was very well received last year), this production utilizes Equity leads and a non-Equity ensemble, to interesting advantage. Many of the dance sequences look great, especially the opening number, "Magic To Do," the "Glory" sequence, the thrilling "Morning Glow" and several opportunities where Fosse trios are utilized (a lead dancer in front, flanked by a supporting dancer on each side). The women of the ensemble (Sasha Kostyrko, Kristin O'Connell, Emily Rogers and Lucy Zukaitis) are especially sexy, and the men (Brian M. Duncan, Tommy Rivera-Vega and Jeremy Sonkin) dance their socks off and carry out their small acting bits with verve.
And the leading characters are played by actors with formidable singing chops, made all the more impressive by the fact that the cast is entirely unamplified. Leading Player Joey Stone has an extremely impressive, beautiful and flexible R&B voice, all runs and trills and idiomatic inflections that are very satisfying throughout (he's worked all over town since landing here five years ago, and it's easy to hear why). His stage presence is unmistakable, and you need to hear him sing these songs. You really do.
The titular hero of the piece is embodied by the elfin, vaguely quirky-looking Andrew Keltz, who looks to be about 15 until you spy a little chest hair poking its way out of his shirt collar. His is not the most resonant vocal instrument, but he sounds entirely conversation and convincing every time he sings, and he too works all over the place. And he is not a conventional juvenile lead, but he plays them constantly, gifted with the innate ability to convey a searching, restless contemporary spirit, adrift in a society he doesn't understand.
James Rank is the Charlemagne here, enacting all the hoary bluster and inner struggle of a man who is admittedly not a brain type of guy. His singing is a combination of exemplary Gilbert and Sullivan patter and baritonal bravado. However, he is saddled with the thankless number, "Welcome Home," which seems to always drag down the action with tons of exposition and not enough flash, so that all "Pippin" productions struggle in the early going. Thankfully, his prayer scene was remarkably nuanced.
The veteran Peggy Roeder, playing Berthe until April 13 (she will be replaced by Cindy Gold, faculty member at Northwestern University and recently in "Show Boat" at Lyric Opera of Chicago), is hilarious and sings like the character actress she is, every note and word perfectly produced. And Angie Stemberg (Fastrada) and Jess Godwin (Catherine) are providing a school for contemporary musical theater singing in this production, with personalized stylings couched within perfectly placed belt techiques. If Zach Zube is not the ideal physical type for the character of Lewis, he nonetheless brings energy, focus and excitement to the role. However, young Theo is here portrayed by the pleasant commitment of young Isabelle Roberts, in a fascinating bit of pre-pubescent gender-bent casting.