Tuesday, October 2, 2012

KC Repertory "Pippin" review by kellyluck

A mixed bag of good intentions at the KC Rep Rating: 3
Kansas City Repertory Theatre

Last week saw the premiere of the new Kansas City Rep production of "Pippin." In it, director Eric Rosen has the stated purpose of creating a unique interpretation of the show which owed as little as possible to the Fosse original. While this reviewer must admit that they have certainly achieved this, she is of two minds as to whether this was necessarily a good idea.

Pippin is, of course, the 1972 musical based (very) loosely on the life of the son of King Charlemagne, but really more than anything else a modern spin on the classic Everyman play. Young Pippin (Claybourne Elder) comes home from university, determined to live a life of meaning and passion. Having convinced his royal father (John Hickok) to let him march with them in battle against the Visigoths, he quickly becomes disillusioned of the glories of war, and sets his sights afield. His wanderings take him through the worlds of hedonism, politics, religion and arts, never quite realizing that his entire journey is being manipulated by a cackling troupe of players, led by their sinister lead (Wallace Smith). Eventually he finds himself with a widow and her son (Katie Gilchrist and Utah Boggs), and almost too late realizes this is the best thing he's ever had in his life.

Now, this reviewer is first to cheer for reinvigorating established works with bold and innovative new interpretations. When I heard that they were going for a radical reworking of the way the story was presented, I couldn't wait to see what they had done. In a post-show panel after one of the preview performances, Rosen stated that he was going for a "punk" feel, but to this reviewer's mind this did not come close to occurring. Don't get me wrong: the accoutrements of punk were there, wardrobe designer Alison Heryer having done her homework to admirable effect. And musical director Curtis Moore certainly did his best to recast the sounds into a late 80's rock idiom, but the various numbers in Pipping span the musical genres, and very often there is a noticeable amount of shoehorning going on. But more than that, there is an essence to punk, a way of seeing the world and reacting to it, that is absent here. Frankly, my own grandmother is more "punk" than these folks (don't judge; you don't know my grandmother). The cast do their best, flailing guitars and bobbing their heads with gusto, bless 'em, but more often than not it just comes off as a Very Special Episode of "Glee."

Still, one must admit there's a lot to like here: Jack Magaw's set design is visually compelling, with his use of picture frames and the overall "concert" set. Jason Lyons' lighting design is nothing short of a triumph. Probably my favorite innovation in this production is that several of the characters perform live instruments onstage. It seems that, when casting the roles, they discovered several of the performers were talented in one or more instruments, and incorporated that fact into the arrangements. This is to be applauded, and I think other interpretations of Pippin could do worse than to follow suit. Also of note was the choreography by Chase Brock, latterly of "Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark", whose choreography did rather often contribute to the "Glee" comment above, but had its shining moments (the puppet dance from "Spread a Little Sunshine" comes to mind).

As to the performances, again there were misses and hits. Top of the hit list, we have Katie Kalahurka and Sam Cordes, whose Fastrada and Lewis threatened to walk away with the show more than once. Also a highlight of the evening was Mary Testa as Berthe, a role that calls for a lot of personality. Fortunately, Testa has it in spades. She manages to exude more charisma than any three people on stage. Hickock's Charles, I fear, comes across as less elder tyrant forging a holy empire by blood and the sword, and more a man who would like very much to talk to you about your personal insurance needs. Smith has a wonderful voice for musical theatre, but as the Leading Player he is, alas, not quite convincing. He hits all the right notes of the character, but doesn't really come off, missing the all-important aura of sly menace even at the very end. He's playing the notes, not the song. Actually, he's playing Ben Vereen. And not as well as he might.

All in all, this is an interesting interpretation of a show that has been around for a good time now, but not quite long enough to be old (both the show and your reviewer are forty, and if this reviewer isn't old, dammit, neither is the show). It starts off weak to this viewer's mind, but round about "Glory" there is a noticable leap in quality. To the "Pippin" veteran, this is an interesting reworking. To the first-timer, perhaps catching something more akin to the original, or even the cinematic treatment would be in order first, so one has a baseline to compare against. Work to adapt the play and bring it forward recently have involved mixed deaf & hearing casts and a new alternate ending, in which the Pippin and the widow watch in helpless horror as her son starts to sing wistfully about his own corner of the sky and the Players, sensing fresh meat, close in on him. Yours truly would have loved to see that presented in this staging. Still, this is an decidedly different take on a well-known work, and we are glad to see KC Rep is still as full of innovative risk takers as ever.

So, where does that leave us? With a show that takes a lot of risks, studiously avoids others, and doesn't always succeed either way. But where it does succeed, it does quite well. We are left disappointed, but hopeful. And that ain't too bad for the end of a musical comedy.


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