PIPPIN: A Bollywood Spectacular? Why, yes. Yes, it is.
For consistency and boldness of artistic vision, or (more accurately) for auteur singularity of mind in application of a specific lens to the artistic work of another, one need look no further than to Oak Park, Illinois, and the Circle Theatre production of "Pippin," playing now through December 23, 2012 at the Madison Street Theatre.
Stepping down from his role of artistic director, but announced to continue his affiliation with the non-Equity company, director-choreographer Kevin Bellie has produced a staging of the early pop-rock musical by Stephen Schwartz, originally staged by Bob Fosse at the height of his conceptual powers, that is remarkable for its sheer force of will and the audacity of its storytelling language. It's called, "Pippin: A Bollywood Spectacular." Even if you end up not liking it, you must see this. And it worked for me. Let me explain.
As you may know, "Pippin" has always been a concept show. It's a play within a play, not unlike "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," "Once on This Island," "Man of La Mancha" and others. And it's one that uses dance, scenery and song to tell, and subvert the telling of, a coming-of-age yarn ostensibly about the oldest son of Charlemagne, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. It's never staged in costumes and scenery entirely from the European Middle Ages, by the way.
In the original script (and, in a different way, in the revised script now commonly used), something happens between the actors playing the roles of Pippin, his love interest Catherine, and the "Leading Player," the narrator and star of the troupe of players telling this yarn. The script is thrown out, the promised ending is replaced by another, the orchestra is told to stop playing, and so on. Like I said, it's always been a concept show.
Bellie, perhaps taking his cue from Schwartz's lyric, "Journey to a spot exciting, mystic and exotic," sets the tale not in the France of the historical Charlemagne, but in India. The dialogue still refers to Arles and the Visigoths, but the map on the wall shows South Asia and Saudi Arabia. Why not? Probably any style will do, as long as it's consistently thought through and realized. And this one is. The costumes, scenery, choreography and musical arrangements are all in the "Bollywood" style, popularized by the huge volume of musical films produced in Bombay in recent times, so popular worldwide now that Bollywood dance classes are being offered alongside jazz, tap and ballet in dance studios across the globe. No, really.
And in one more conceptual stroke, Bellie's Pippin, or at least the actor playing him (the actor whom, we're told, is new in the part at tonight's performance), is sleeping as the show begins, being wakened from his dreams of India by his alarm clock and by the actors of the play emerging from the inside of his mattress. Come to think of it, maybe he doesn't wake up, after all…. Hmm.
Where does this all lead, you might ask? The sleeping Pippin actor, the clown-car mattress, the South Asian clothes, makeup and hair, the aerobic Indian dances, the music (more or less conventional in the ballads, but definitely transformed in the up-tempo numbers) and the palace scenery that wouldn't be out of place at "The King and I?" Oh, and did I mention a Leading Player who is pretty much evil and menacing throughout? He is. And here's where it leads--I actually understood the ending! And that, my friends, makes "Pippin: A Bollywood Spectacular" worth seeing. The show, in all its conceptual layers, makes dramatic sense.
Here's what this show shows: Actor X (my name for him) dreams about India, and from those dreams emerges a troupe of players from the musical films of Bollywood. That Actor assumes the role of Pippin in a musical version of Charlemagne's son's life, and all goes well, until Actress Y, playing the role of Catherine, really falls in love with Actor X. She departs from the script, emboldening him. And now, when he is told by the Leading Player that he must immolate himself and die in a spectacular blaze of glory, Actor X rebels too, holding close to Actress Y and to the boy (Actor Z) who, perhaps, is her real son (he plays Theo in the theatrical). The Leading Player, angry that his bloodthirstiness has been thwarted, that his evil theatrical trick hasn't worked, storms out, taking everyone else with him. Man, woman and child begin to depart together. And yet, the child actor may very well one day face the same threat that Actor X has faced. Will he overcome it, and cheat death, too? Thank God it may all have been a dream….
OK, now that's a fascinating trip to take! All you have to do is trust the director. Believe me, when you see this cast of sixteen dancing up a storm, when you hear sitar sounds and exotic drumbeats and synthesizer hits coming from the two keyboardists and two percussionists that make up musical director Ryan Brewster's impressive orchestra (arrangements by the clearly inventive Peter Storms), when Bob Knuth's luscious set and Jesus Perez's colorful costumes unfurl before you, when Gary C. Echelmeyer's swirling lights and somebody's creative and ominous projections dazzle your eye, you had better think, "I'm going with them on this journey. This may not be what I thought I was getting, or I thought Bollywood was supposed to be all kitschy, or I'm a little weirded out right now, but I trust these people and I want to see this thing through."
That, my friends, is what I hope you will do. You will indeed by rewarded. And yes, I am aware that there are no Asians in the cast (a topic of consternation in some circles). Yet, the Asians in the audience last night seemed pleased that folks from other cultures would want to view an American artwork through an Indian artistic lens. Or, are the actors viewing an Indian cultural export by utilizing an American artistic lens? You decide.
And there isn't really a weak link in this production. If the cast betrays its youth and/or lack of expertise from time to time, I challenge any actor in town to be in this demanding production. Want more musicians? Pay a higher ticket price. But in its two leading players, you would be hard pressed to find anyone able to play the dramatic truth in this concept with any more skill and conviction than do Christopher Logan as the Leading Player and Neil Stratman as Pippin. They are on point from first to last.
Triple-threat Logan is exciting and unnerving throughout. He makes some audacious acting choices--some that undermine his singing voice a bit, but no one but a singing teacher would notice, or care. He gives a thoroughly committed, crazy-consistent performance, of a brilliant, bravura type one doesn't see very often. Stratman unveils several spectacular, belted high Cs that would be the envy of any Pippin in recorded history, and by the play's end is perhaps the manliest, most adult Pippin of anyone who really seemed like a teenager in the opening scene. Both of these guys are due for much bigger things, and the discerning theater fan should catch them now, in relative close-up. And they, like practically everyone in this show, are sexy as hell.
As Catherine, Khaki Pixley looks and sings as beautifully as she should, and had me on The Edge of my seat with her bold acting decisions in Act II. Her son, Theo, was the young Sam Gray, who really did love that duck. As Charlemagne, Noah Sullivan lacked a little gravitas perhaps, but performed boldly nonetheless. His second wife, Fastrada, was played with a great deal of fun by Jennifer Bludgen, whose voice carries like wildfire. Patti Roeder plays his mother, Berthe, with a calm sexiness and delightful sense of dance. And as Lewis, Shawn Quinlan is a little bit wacked out, but for Lewis, that's perfectly ok!
The hardworking dancing and singing ensemble (and you should see them in their body stockings during the orgy sequence) consists of Erin Renee Baumrucker, Sarah Bright, Kim Green, Steve Greist, Penelope Long, Isaac Loomer, Nico Nepomuceno and Nyk Sutter. These kids are on board Bellie's ride from second one. And yes, that's four girls and four boys, though they aren't always paired up so evenly, if you catch my drift. It's "Pippin!"
I have loved the original cast album of "Pippin" since its vinyl still smelled funny, and no, the songs don't sound like those AT ALL in this production. But, you know what? They must be pretty good songs after all, because they can be done in more than one way. Pop is pop, and only the trappings have changed. "No Time At All" is still a sing-along, "Morning Glow" is still moving and spiritual, "Corner of the Sky" is still universal, "On the Right Track" is still more complicated than you remembered, and "With You" and "I Guess I'll Miss The Man" are still among the best ballads of the past half century.
Is this a perfect "Pippin?" No, it's not. But to sit in solemn silence in a suburban storefront theater, and experience a delightful, disturbing show in an unexpected way, performed by skilled show folk on the frontier of multiculturalism? That's not only show business at its best, it makes you think! And feel, and dream and wonder. Isn't that what theater is all about? For his official swan song with a company he has guided for so long, Kevin Bellie went long. Not a "Hail Mary" pass, but the kind a quarterback throws when he knows the field, his team, and his audience. And they know him. This "Pippin" is a winner, beguiling and thought-provoking. I will remember this one for a very long time.
"Pippin" will be performed by Circle Theatre at 1010 Madison Street in Oak Park. The show previews on November 10 & 13 at 8:00pm and opens on Wednesday, November 14th at 8:00pm, running from November 16th to December 23rd. Shows are on Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm & Sundays at 3pm. The Box Office may be reached at 708-660-9540. Preview tickets are priced at $15 (November 10 & 13 only). Regular show tickets are Friday: All seats $26; Saturday/Sunday: $30 for adults, $28 for students/seniors. Group rates are available. For more information, visit http://www.circle-theatre.org.
PHOTO CREDIT: Tom Bludgen
PHOTOS (top to bottom): Neil Stratman, Christopher Logan and Khaki Pixley; Neil Stratman and company; Patti Roeder and company; Kim Green, Christopher Logan and Penelope Long; Patti Roeder, Christopher Logan and Jennifer Bludgen; Sam Gray, Neil Stratman and Khaki Pixley; Steve Greist, Nyk Sutter, Jennifer Bludgen, Shawn Quinlan and Nico Nepomuceno.