BWW Reviews: Cook and Company Offer Fresh Look and Concept in Boiler Room Theatre's PIPPIN

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What with its Brechtian overtones, its heavily pop music-influenced score and its fanciful yet intriguing story, Pippin remains one of the most-misunderstood-and I daresay debated-musicals in contemporary theater history. Now, in a sumptuous production at Boiler Room Theatre that features an imaginative concept by peripatetic director Paul Cook, the expressive choreography of Holly Shepherd, the confident musicianship of Jamey Green and his band of players, and the beautiful designs of costumer Lynda Cameron Bayer and set designer Nathan Hamilton, Pippin is finally welcomed back to Music City after far too long an absence.

There may have been other local productions of Pippin that I missed, but the last one I remember was in the late 1980s, when Circle Players presented it with a cast that included Martha Wilkinson and Nancy Clymer Brown. Thanks to the fabulous Green brothers-Jamey and Corbin, the wunderkind pair who have kept BRT thriving for twelve years-Nashville area audiences are treated to the Stephen Schwartz gem (which features a book by Roger O. Hirson, with additions to the libretto from original director Bob Fosse, whose enduring impact on the show continues to be felt in oh so many ways) with a revival that is entertaining and engaging, with Cook's direction and concept providing the framework in which his exceptional cast of actors are allowed to, in more ways than one, strut their stuff. The result is yet another feather in the already feather-heavy BRT cap.

Led by the maniacally perfect Billy Ditty as the appropriately named "Leading Player," the 14-member ensemble deliver a thoroughly focused performance, never straying from the job at hand to endanger the success of the production. That focus is necessary, of course, given the intimate confines of the playing space and the amount of action that transpires on that postage stamp-sized stage. The action, in fact, never stops and choreographer Shepherd-obviously channeling the spirit and the nature of the master Fosse himself-gives the actors a lot to do. Quite frankly, this may be one of the best choreographed musicals ever mounted at the Boiler Room, so evocative is every movement and so expertly performed is every number.

Cook's concept for the musical-which seems at first glance a confection of frippery and foppery, but upon deeper investigation reveals a work of much deeper meaning and import-casts The Players as members of a ragtag circus of sorts (although Cameron's exquisite costumes might belie that description) who defy convention and present a play filled with magic, comedy, tragedy, music and romance that somehow confounds logic, yet manages to intrigue and entertain. It's a winning concoction that completely envelopes the entirety of the venue, with The Players taking their action throughout the space, involving the audience in their high-spirited hijinks and, thereby, drawing them into the story more effectively.

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Cook's direction ensures that the Pippin onstage at the Boiler Room is somewhat darker and more foreboding than you might suspect-perhaps more akin  to  the aims of the show's creators at its birth. The story, however slight and effervescent it may seem, is far weightier than you might suspect. As the story of Pippin (played by Josh Lowery) is revealed-he is the eldest son of Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor-we see the vague and vapid young man develop into someone of more consequence and gravitas. With his head at first turned by the adulation and adoration of his royal subjects, Pippin ultimately realizes the follies of his youth and sets off on a journey of self-discovery and the search for meaning in his heretofore inconsequential existence.

The show's score, which truly is one of the theater's best of the last half of the 20th century, remains relentlessly (and deceptively) upbeat and wonderfully hummable-and which is wonderfully performed by Jamey Green and his band, which includes Rick Malkin, Doug Bright, Dale Herr and Tom McGinley-but if you listen to the libretto and watch the performances of the troupe of actors telling the story, you will find so much more. Pippin will provoke deep thought and introspection if you allow it, just as certainly as it lifts your spirit with its memorable songs and the joyous impact of talented actors doing what they do best.

Ditty, charming and self-assured, gives us a Leading Player who is wonderfully wicked and slightly depraved, interacting with the audience in a way that is both off-putting and accessible. He shows off the choreography created by Shepherd with ease and skill, moving with a dancer's lithe confidence throughout the show and creating a sense of whimsical decadence in the process. Ditty interprets Schwartz's songs with serious intent leavened by a healthy sense of humor that makes "Simple Joys" and "On the Right Track" so riveting.

The Leading Player is counter-balanced by the boyish charm and youthful innocence (so beautifully expressed in his performance of "Corner of the Sky") of Lowery as Pippin. Tall and impossibly thin, Lowery's wide-eyed wonderment is palpable, making Pippin's eventual realization of what his life is all about all the more effective and emotionally impactful, which is particularly felt in his performance of "Extraordinary." He is paired-in the musical's second act-with the luminous Rosemary Fossee as Catherine, a lovelorn young widow who sees in Pippin the answer to her prayers. Fossee's performance is multi-layered and somehow transcendant; she is an actress of such range and capabilities that you find yourself awestruck by her depth and versatility.

The musical's most heartfelt moment, in fact, comes near the very end of the musical: Lowery and Fossee's lovely performance of "Love Song," the oftentimes overlooked jewel in Schwartz's memorable score for Pippin. It alone is worth the price of the ticket.

Of course, there's so much more to ensure you get your money's worth in BRT's stunning revival of Pippin. Cook's decision to cast a man-the always delightful Dan McGeachey-as Pippin's grandmother Berthe is perhaps unexpected and drolly amusing, but it is McGeachey's performance of "No Time At All" that makes the casting conceit nothing less than a brilliant stroke of theatricality (and we cannot downplay the importance of theatricality in Pippin).

W. Scott Stewart is blustery yet wisely paternal as Charlemagne, using his physical size and his powerful voice to bring the emperor to life with aplomb. Reischa Feuerbacher gives a terrifically nuanced performance as his duplicitous and conniving wife Fastrada and Greg Richards is excellent as their foppish son Lewis.

Cook's ensemble-charged with playing all manner of roles and bringing any number of outlandish situations to life-is uniformly impressive in their total control and focus, which is so essential in the production's overall success. Bill Jones, Corrie Miller, Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva, Russell Qualls, JR Knowles and Vicki White make up that ensemble with style, each adding his or her own personal flair without distracting from the overall effect of Cook's vision for the piece.

And, finally, Hayden Gill once again shows his remarkable stage presence as the young Pippin and as Catherine's duck-loving son Theo. Watch this kid; he's going places!

Nathan Hamilton's gorgeous scenic design, which provides the troupe's slightly seedy circus backdrop is well-conceived and opulently realized. The eye-popping visuals provided by Hamilton's set-and Lynda Cameron Bayer's costumes-give the audience even more of a theatrical offering on which to feast throughout the show's scant two hours of action.

Pippin. Book by Roger O. Hirson. Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Directed by Paul J. Cook. Music direction by Jamey Green. Choreography by Holly Shepherd. Presented by Boiler Room Theatre, Franklin. Through July 28. For details, go to www.boilerroomtheatre.com; for reservations, call (615) 794-7744.

photos by Rick Malkin

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


 
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