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Another Corner of the Sky: "Pippin" at JHU

SHOW INFORMATION: Through April 13.  Fri and Sat at 8PM, Sun at 3PM.  Information and reservations:  

◊◊◊◊ out of five.  2 hours, 15 minutes, including intermission.  Stylized violence, drug use and sexual content.


Who'd have thought that Baltimore would be seeing even one revival of Pippin this spring, let alone two in the same week?!  Well, Stephen Schwartz fans, rejoice!  Pippin, if you missed it at Towson University last weekend, has another weekend to go at Johns Hopkins University's Swirnow Theatre.  Presented by the JHU Barnstormers, the entirely student-run production, directed by Kristofer Kauff, is a more traditional presentation, more in line with the Bob Fosse version which ran for years on Broadway.  In fact, large portions of the extensive choreography are either direct replicas of Fosse's Tony-winning work (the "Manson Trio" section of "Glory"), or very close in spirit to the original (the "Frolic" section of "With You).  Elsewhere, the staging is completely original (particularly the finale, which is probably the best invention I've ever seen for the awkward final moments, which Mr. Fosse himself had troubles staging).  Ultimately, the result is a fully realized production, with enough of the original to placate fans of the show, and enough new material to keep those of us who really KNOW the show interested. 

Mr. Kauff, along with Elysha Chang and Erica Bauman are credited with the choreography, and are all three to be commended for matching the steps to the wide variety of talent levels of the ensemble.  How they got through all of the relatively complex patterns is a fete.  The entire ensemble does very well at the dancing, or at the very least at making it look like they know what they are doing.  Those familiar with the show know that the "Players" as the ensemble is known do incredible amounts of work in this show, and save for the Leading Player and Pippin himself, they are onstage more than any of the principals.  The Players (arranged in the program in alphabetical order – by first name) are: Bill Fuller, Carol Santoro, Frazier Heinis, Gordon Mack, Jessica Lambertson, Kelly McNamara, Lauren Kohan, Lisa Carey, Matt Haynes, Rebecca McGivney, Robert Attori, Robert Kasten, Rosie Xie and Toni Del Sorbo.  What is particularly nice about this ensemble is that they represent a group of regular people – all shapes, sizes, races and genders.  The female ensemble members do particularly nice work in "With You," while the gentlemen add quite a bit of spunk to "No Time at All." 

What really makes this Pippin such a fine performance is the nearly uniform high quality of its principal actors, all decent singers who know how to act, which this show really requires.  Oddly, the weakest link of the main company is the Leading Player, played by Gerrad Taylor.  Mr. Taylor has the look and sometimes feel of the role's originator, Ben Vereen.  And he is a worthy dancer, particularly during the "Manson Trio."  But, smooth dance moves aren't enough for this role.  He seems to struggle with breath control and gets somewhat off pitch frequently when trying to catch his wind.  Then, too, there are several times when he lacks intensity, which is particularly noticeable in act two when things start to fall apart for the troupe. 

Both of the "older" women in Pippin's life, Berthe and Fastrada, are played with measurable pluck by Evelyn Clark and Cara Selick, respectively.  Miss Clark's Berthe is a sassy grandmotherly type, warbling her way (completely in character) through "No Time at All," and gets all feisty with her back up "boys" who are lounging on tufts of "grass" at her feet.  Those tufts, by the way, are very creative; they are big green bathmats!  Miss Selick's Fastrada is a potent blend of narcissism and wicked false innocence.  She sings the rather trying number, "Spread a Little Sunshine," with a rueful glee, and the glint in her eyes as she manipulates her children and husband is a delight. 

The younger women in Pippin's life, Catherine and Thea, are played very wittily by Jackie Jennings and Vanna Della Cruz, respectively.  Miss Cruz's take on the small daughter is a hoot – a combination small child and knowing brat.  She has a real way with a one-line zinger, too.  Miss Jennings' approach to Catherine is very grounded.  She has a job to do, and she will do it, come hell or high water, but watching her succumb to Pippin's multiple charms is both funny and sweet.  She has a sweet, if appropriately thin voice, and does well with her big numbers, "I Guess I'll Miss the Man" and "Ordinary Woman," and holds some dazzling harmonies with her Pippin in "Love Song." 

Rajiv Mallipudi is Pippin's brother, Lewis, and he has great stage presence and quite a way with a fake sword.  While he is clearly good at the "Lewis loves Lewis" part of his character, he comes off way to smooth and cocky to believe he is also "stupid."  Still, when he is on stage, the energy quotient goes way up.  As Charles, Pippin's father, Dave Haldane creates a worldly-wise king, but also a very self-aware one.  His Charles is one who thinks and prays and is clearly flummoxed by having to kill for good.  He enjoys it, knows it well, etc., but his mind is clearly telling him things don't quite add up.  An interesting and rewarding take on the part. 

Finally, there is Pippin, himself.  Remember this name: Rob Keleher.  This young man is going places, even if he isn't choosing the stage as a career.  His Pippin is all out; everything about him – his look, his demeanor, his posture, his delivery – is 100% about conveying the message that Pippin is searching, confused, longing, etc.  He dances well and boy, can this guy sing!  Many people can sing "Corner of the Sky," (it used to be an audition staple) but few people can sing AND act it the way it needs to be.  But Mr. Keleher is one of the few who can.  His belt is considerable and his head voice is strong.  Again, what really powers his performance, though is the natural ease he has on stage and the introspective nature of his acting.  I am willing to bet he is exhausted after each performance. 

The somewhat barebones staging of the show – everything is pretty much black with a few colorful set pieces and some lighting – only serves to highlight the story, and its real reason for being – the journey of one young man on a search for fulfillment, and the almost tragic turn his life takes.  With an excellently cast lead and great support for him, this Pippin can't lose.


PHOTOS courtesy of JHU Barnstormers.  TOP to BOTTOM: The Company;  Rosie Xie, Gerrad Taylor, Toni Del Sorbo; Rob Keleher and Jackie Jennings; Dave Haldane and Rob Keleher.


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