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Think About Your Life: 'Pippin' at Towson University

SHOW INFORMATION: Through April 5. Fri and Sat at 8PM, Sat at 2PM.  Tickets $2 students/$5 general.  In the studio theatre of the Fine Arts building on the campus of Towson University.

◊◊◊◊ out of five.  2 hours, including intermission.  Adult language, sexual themes, stylized violence and brief partial nudity.

I'm about to show my age here.  I knew about Stephen Schwartz decades before Wicked, though my first introduction to him was not his other classic, Godspell, but a really cool looking purple record album called Pippin.  As my family will grudgingly tell you, I played that thing so much that I literally wore the vinyl out on not one, but two copies!  My CD is doing just fine, thank you.  There is not a bad song in the score (ok, "Prayer for a Duck" is marginal, but not bad).  And for awhile, Pippin was everywhere – every school, college, community theatre and beyond did it, and the vast majority were influenced by (if not downright copies of) the Bob Fosse classic staging.  With an admittedly thin book, Pippin is ripe for conceptualization; a simple coming of age story wouldn't be that exciting.  And Pippin has gone the way of so many shows, remembered but not performed much.  So, in a way, it comes as somewhat of a surprise that this week I'll be attending two different productions of the show!  The first, which opened last night at Towson University, will be extremely hard to beat.  With a creative, well-fitting concept, deft, thoughtful direction, and superb musical styling, this Pippin may be one of the best I've seen, including two versions I have personally been involved with!

This completely student-run production (with faculty advising by Daniel Ettinger and Diane Smith Sadake) is helmed by Ryan Haase (TU's Urinetown and The Who's Tommy).  Mr. Haase has clearly learned a lot during his tenure at the university, because quite honestly, his direction is as good as or better than many beloved veteran directors I've had to review.  The entire production hums with a youthful but focused energy, and clearly every single person on stage, in the band and backstage is on the same page, with complete understanding of what he is trying to accomplish.  The road company of Camelot could use his services…  It is also abundantly clear that he is/has been an actor, because he truly understands the complex duality of the script, which has the "Players" alternately as the characters in the story of Pippin and as a company of actors performing for the audience.  But what is truly the hallmark of this production is the amazingly tight fit of his concept, which is basically that the troupe of actors are automatons, ruled by the machinery of the world (wheel cogs figure prominently in Mr. Haase's set design).  The Leading Player orchestrates the action, but it is carried out with a frightening air of mechanism over humanity.  Very high concept for a show about that which makes us human – the search for complete fulfillment and sexual, physical and spiritual growth.  And this concept isn't shoe-horned in, complete with gaps in logic; no, this production carries it through in every single aspect of its presentation.  Watching the ensemble move like scary robotic mannequins gives me goose bumps at the memory.  And it is played sometimes for laughs, sometimes for truth (especially the war scenes), but mostly to really highlight those human elements (especially in act two, when Pippin finds love).

Like any good director, Mr. Haase has surrounded himself with a very able team to bring his vision to the stage.  While he designed the setting (a few wheel cogs, black and white curtains and several chairs) and the costumes (a curious mix of Cabaret-revival chic, Chicago-revival sexiness and well-placed Victorian anachronisms), his lighting designer, James Johnson has followed the concept well, offering only glimmers of color, and even then they seem fake compared to the otherwise cold pallet he works from.  The hair and makeup designers, Brittany Morris and Emily Levin also deserve recognition, for their contribution is enormous and equal parts humor and sheer terror.

His choreographer, Rachel Beiswenger has done a magnificent job in creating movement that fits the concept, the abilities of her company and highlighting the special skills of others.  In a show that is identified by its original dancing and choreographer, it is amazing how she uses such focus that there isn't huge dancing all the time, but very stylized movement, such as "War is a Science" and "Glory."  There are still some bigger numbers, "Magic to Do" and "With You" come readily to mind.  The latter also features some lovely en point ballet.  Equally impressive is the musical direction of R. Alex Kliner, who has assembled a small, but excellent band, and has spruced up the arrangements to have a more modern feel – none of it sounds very seventies, which is a good thing.  The same can be said for the vocal arrangements, all the more important considering that there are only five men in a cast of 18.

The ensemble of Pippin in any production is one of the hardest working of any musical out there, and this production is no exception.  These folks play a host of characters and never break the overall automaton character they are.  Nice work from the entire ensemble of "Players": Samantha Beary, Rachel Beiswenger, Vanessa Buenger, Katie Clark, Ashley Ingram, Caitlyn Joy, Jaclyn Keough, Emily Levin, Rachel Lee Rash, Katie O. Solomon and Mitchel Lee Troescher.

The evil duo of Frastrada (manipulating and bizarrely sexual wife of the King and step-mother to Pippin) and Louis (self-absorbed, dumb mama's boy and Pippin's brother) are played with delicious, almost sadistic glee by Amanda Rife and Will Parquette.  Miss Rife has a great sneer of a voice, and plays the wanton sex angle with an almost sinister ease.  She's not a bad dancer, even doing one of Fosse's signature moves, of rolling the crown down her extended leg (one of the few well-chosen moments of paying tribute to the great Fosse, without wholesale copying).  It is also great fun to see Mr. Parquette in a role he clearly relishes and has a good handle on.  One of the pleasures of covering college productions is watching the steady growth of a program's actors, and he is growing by leaps and bounds as an actor.

The role of Catherine can be difficult to play without a clear understanding of what the role requires – she is the one that upset the traditions and expectations of the troupe.  Happily, Jayne Harris seems to have that understanding, playing the "actress-playing-a-part" shtick easily and giving the rest of her performance a nice glaze of sincerity.  She handles "Ordinary Woman" easily and navigates both "Love Song" and "I Guess I'll Miss the Man" with authority.  Perhaps my only negative critique is that she could pump up the volume just a tad.  Alex Kafarakis as Charles is a terrific mix of childish glee – he seems like a kid with toys during "War is a Science" – and grand pomposity (Skidoo!).  That is a pretty wide range for one role, and he does a super job throughout.  The always crowd-pleasing role of Berthe, Pippin's grandmother, and feisty old bird, is in the perfect hands of Danielle Robinette, who sings the hell out of "No Time at All."  A tall girl, she would dominate any scene she is in, and boy, can she command a stage!  Her take on the role fits this dark concept exceptionally well.  She manages to maintain the crowd-pleasing quality of it while giving it a full force sadistic reading.  Her asides are alternately funny and chilling; you laugh and then catch yourself.  Best of all, her Berthe is a woman of power and self-approval, not the mushy sweet feisty grandma that the role usually is played like.

Jesse Frank, as the Leading Player, is a good, if not perfect fit in the concept/role.  He exudes a dangerous, sinister air, and he could probably coax water out of a rock.  When he isn't orchestrating a scene, he is always fully in character, stalking the edges like a guard dog.  When he really lets out his belty voice, his singing is awesome.  Unfortunately, perhaps because of his body mic placement, there are many times when his lyrics and lines go either unheard or are completely garbled.  That, of course, is not entirely his fault, but he would do well to listen to the feedback and adjust his volume when the microphones aren't cutting it.  Overall, though, he is a doing accomplished work.

Finally, the title role of Pippin in the wrong hands can ruin this show.  Aaron Lampert does a fine job in making the whole thing work and rest on his shoulders.  His small stature and boyish charm go a long way in ingratiating his Pippin to the audience, but his stunning maturity, especially in act two, really sells him in the role.  He may look young and small, but he becomes, ultimately, a fine man, which is what Pippin is all about.  Like Mr. Frank, he had some microphone issues and really needs to listen, but he has a nice voice, and his acting is great.  Perhaps it was opening night jitters, but Mr. Lampert started out very tense, which effected both his singing – a tight throat will make a strained sound - and his musculature, which was equally stiff making his movements not automaton-like, but just uncomfortable.  Of course, I don't think it is intended that Pippin behave like the rest of the cast, so that stiffness works against him at the start.  When he allows himself to relax, he is great – you root for him the whole time.  I really look forward to seeing what else this young man has to offer theatergoers.

The real stars of this show, though, are the students in every facet of the production.  They are, from director to usher, a force to be reckoned with.  Bravo.

PHOTOS courtesy of Towson University.  TOP to BOTTOM: Aaron Lampert as Pippin, the boy; Berthe (Danielle Robinette, center) and Ensemble; Aaron Lampert as Pippin, King of the Holy Roman Empire; and Aaron Lampert and Jayne Harris as Pippin, adoring lover, and Catherine.


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