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.
The orchestra of five, conducted by Weinberger and playing his orchestral reduction of the score, plays as softly as one could imagine a pop-rock score could be played, to their credit and the credit of sound designer Christopher Kriz. In addition to the songs I've already mentioned, I loved "On the Right Track," for its perfect blend of choreography, acting moments, use of the playing space and the singing of the two male leads, the lovely and still "Love Song" by Keltz and Godwin, and, especially, Roeder and Company's delivery of "No Time At All," complete with audience sing-along and hitting all the right showbiz mastery this number requires.
Can I discuss the ending of the show for a bit? I know this show's coup de theatre ending is supposed to be a secret surprise, but it's over 40 years old, and fairly well known to the readers of BroadwayWorld. So, here I go. When the Leading Player proposed to Pippin that he should end his life in a glorious blazing bonfire and Pippin refuses, prompting the Leading Player to order the removal of all "theatrical" elements (lights, costumes, music) from Pippin and Catherine, I'm never quite sure that it ever truly works. First of all, is Pippin the character rebelling, or is the unnamed actor playing him in the Leading Player's troupe rebelling? And why does the L.P. get so upset? This is not set up very well by bookwriter Roger O. Hirson (was it Fosse's idea?), nor is it really explained--this oversized, childish reaction to an actor (or character) refusing to follow the script. If you don't know it's coming, it's shocking and unique and interesting. But once you think about it, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. It makes a point, but it isn't as perfect an ending as I wish it were. Oh, well. Small quibble.
That being said, this particular production handles it pretty well. The lights and flashiness of the show do indeed reach their peak just before the unforeseen turn of events, and the final image of Pippin, Catherine and Theo in their underwear does carry the meaning it is intended to convey. Actually, the lighting for this show (by Charles Cooper) is one of its best aspects. The lights change constantly, directing the eye and conveying the mood and creating the time and place. I was extremely impressed. I don't think the workable scenic design (Stephen M. Carmody), properties design (Nick Heggestad) or costume design (Jessica Snyder) of this production would come off near as well, were the lighting not so perfect.
So, kudos to Reddish and TMTC for a fun, meaningful and stylistically appropriate "Pippin," with moments of real creativity. The level of vocal excellence here is not always heard in other small, intimate theaters, and speaks to the priorities of this still-young company. If you love that legendary cast album, you'll enjoy this production, even with a small orchestra. And the show's theme of staying true to oneself, while looking for love and finding joy and meaning in the simple things of life, is a timeless one, well worth revisiting. Applause for the company of "Pippin!"
The Music Theatre Company's production of "Pippin," by Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson, plays March 22-May 6, 2012 at the Karger Center, 1850 Green Bay Road in Highland Park, directed and choreographed by Founding Artistic Director Jessica Reddish. Tickets are available by calling 847.579.4900 or by visiting www.themusictheatrecompany.org.
PHOTOS: (top) Andrew Keltz as Pippin with (L to R) Emily Rogers, Lucy Zukaitis and Sasha Kostyrko in "Pippin" at The Music Theatre Company; (bottom) Joey Stone as the Leading Player with cast members of "Pippin" at The Music Theatre Company
PHOTO CREDIT: www.jonathansportraits.com