BWW Review: Street Theatre Company's Social Media-Inspired PIPPIN
Musical theater lends itself to the "high concept" approach, to be certain, even if it doesn't always add to the overall success of a production. Case in point: Street Theatre Company's current revival of Stephen Schwartz's Pippin, onstage through June 25 at Holy Trinity Community Church in Nashville, which despite a cast of theatrical heavy hitters seems rather lost in a befuddling miasma of forced social media fun and games.
Hoping to catch lightning in a bottle, as it were, by appropriating social media to call attention to the musical and to heighten the experience for audience members eager to embrace the latest pop culture rage, STC's artistic director Jason Tucker's new revival exemplifies a glass-half-full/glass-half-empty way of thinking that varies wildly depending on who's rendering judgment. Telling Pippin's story of a callow young nobleman seeking to ascend to the throne occupied by his father, all the while experiencing life to its fullest - or life at its fullest, as he perceives that to be - in his determination to become a far more compassionate ruler than his forebear, Tucker's production is energetically performed by a capable cast of performers, but their efforts oftentimes seem lost amid the trappings.
While there's been much debate about the presence - and use - of cellular phones in the theater and audience members' reliance on social media as a form of communication, utilizing it as part of a production could be construed as the ideal way of seizing control. Or (and this is potentially a really big "or") it simply becomes such a distraction that audiences have difficulty following the circuitous plot of Pippin and instead just retreat to a place from which to text their friends, shop on Amazon or watch YouTube videos when they really should be engaged with the live people giving their all on the stage just feet from the end of their appendages.
Still, it's an intriguing precept and playgoers are given the option of being more actively involved in the production that plays out on the stage: You can give your name and various social media "handles" to the cast members so they may keep in close communication with you throughout the show or you may instead just use the hashtag #stcpippin while posting quips, criticisms, complaints and rejoinders yourself on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or any other of the myriad of options at your fingertips. Thankfully, I chose not to actively participate (although, I gotta tell you I have loved live-tweeting productions in the past) and instead chose to follow along, however obliquely, like it was just your run-of-the-mill show.
That is, I followed along until I realized I could actually be texting friends while watching the action unfold onstage, taking me out of the theatrical experience into my own private reverie that was unfair to the cast and crew who had worked so valiantly to bring Pippin to life with a refreshing candor that simply didn't appeal to me. Which prompts me to ask: How would cast members respond to particularly snarky comments from people out there in the not-so-dark theater seats? Not so congenially, I would hazard to guess - but what can you expect when actors have poured their heart and soul into creating a new take on a well-known and we daresay beloved musical?
Tucker's fresh take on Pippin, however, succeeds on some other levels thanks to the new vistas opened up by not relying on what you've seen or heard before. Perhaps most noteworthy about this Pippin is choreographer Mallory Mundy's approach to show's movement. Instead of relying on what's been performed before and, thereby, aping the best efforts of Bob Fosse to recreate his original dances, Mundy instead seems inspired by them and gives them her own special flair. The result is a Pippin that dances its way through the young prince's journey with a seemingly new and different step.
Tucker's ensemble take the stage with a sense of adventure, exuding verve throughout the show. Ryan Greenawalt pours years of experience and emotion into Pippin's best-known songs, while Amanda Elend plays Catherine with a sweetly unexpected authenticity that ensures all eyes are on her when she's onstage. Natalie Rankin veritably stops the show as Fastrada, while Elliot Robinson shows his commanding presence as Charlemagne.
But it's David Ridley, as the leading player, who shows all the requisite panache and charisma while taking control of the theater and leading his cohorts through the rather timeless tale.
Among the ensemble - a blend of faces both familiar and brand new - performers such as Cameron Bortz, Loren Ferster, Sam Hallum, Peri Barnhill, Dwayne Benn, Katelynn Fahrer, Melissa Silengo and Hudson Snyder retaIn Focus and commitment from their very first moments onstage to the show's curtain.
Musical director Randy Craft's musicans deliver the score with confidence finished with a filip of style and Christen Helmen's colorful costumes add a particular punch to the show's overall design aesthetic.
Pippin. Book by Roger O. Hirson. Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Directed by Jason Tucker. Musical direction by Randy Craft. Choreography by Mallory Mundy. Presented by Street Theatre Company at Holy Trinity Community Church, Nashville. Through June 25. For tickets, go to www.streettheatrecompany.org or call (615) 554-7414.
photos by Christen Heilman