Last Friday night I drove to Ben Davis High School on the west side of Indy. Ben Davis’ beautiful Theater space is the home of the Wayne Township Community Theatre. I wanted to see WTCT’s production of “Pippin” as directed by Brian G. Hartz, assistant directed/stage managed by Jeremy M. Cales, music/vocal directed by Ginger Stoltz, and produced by Gus Pearcy and the Wayne Township Education Foundation.
This is one fascinating show.
In fact, all day on Saturday as I worked at my day job, a part of my mind kept thinking about “Pippin.”
Supposedly it is a show about the virtually unknown son of the famous Charlemagne. But really it is a show for adults about adolescence.
Adolescence in leaders. Adolescence in countries. Adolescence in each of us.
I work with teenagers every day as part of my day job, so “adolescence” is a topic that interests me.
But also, “Pippin” fascinates me the way a novel that is filled with psychological depth and nuance, and which resists categorization, fascinates a readers’ advisory librarian. (Readers’ advisory is another part of my day job.)
I believe it has a happy ending, but I can also support an argument for it having an unhappy ending. Maybe that is another reason it fascinates me.
Beyond my fascination with the show, on Friday night there were a couple of bizarre technical occurrences that intrigued me: I wondered if they had been artistic choices or mistakes. Also, although I enjoyed the show very much, I got the feeling that one or two of the actors had not yet fully taken possession of their roles. I wanted to give the show another chance before I wrote about it.
And finally, I thought I was over the crush I had developed on actor Dane Rogers at last year’s Indy Fringe Festival, but hearing him sing for the first time Friday night made me smitten with him all over again. Every time he was on stage Friday night, I found myself focusing on him and thinking, “Hope, he is only 24 years old AND you like his girlfriend. Hope! You like his girlfriend AND he is only 24 years old!”
I couldn’t possibly write a fair review of the show when my attention had been so lopsided.
So…for a number of reasons, I rescheduled my plans to work on my Abraham Lincoln storytelling project Saturday night and went back to see “Pippin” a second time.
For a friend, I wrote a sort of “parental and teen guidance” appendix to this review. It is available here. Warning: it has lots of plot spoilers.
“Pippin” was originally produced on the Broadway stage by Stuart Ostrow and directed there by Bob Fosse. The book for “Pippin” is by Roger O. Hirson. The music and lyrics are by Stephen Schwartz.
The show on Saturday night was much smoother than Friday’s had been, although there were still some problems with the sound system. (At the risk of sounding like a stage mother, why doesn’t someone turn up – or ON – Dane Rogers’ microphone for “Magic to Do” in the opening scene, for example?)
The stage hand who had scooted across the stage in the middle of the murder scene to whisk away one of the monks on Friday night did not appear on Saturday night, so that must have been a mistake rather than an artistic choice. I’m glad: it had been distracting.
The sing-a-long section was HUGELY improved on Saturday night. Instead of trying to flash the words one at a time by computer screen on the back wall of the stage, the audience received paper handouts of the words in our programs. When it was time for us to sing, the house lights came up. Singing along with the radiant earth mother, Berthe (Adrienne Reiswerg) was a lot of fun. “Oh, it’s time to start livin’…”
Speaking of Pippin’s grandmother, Berthe, I loved that character all over again on Saturday night. Reiswerg wears a leather bustier that she purchased herself for this production. She also wears a long, flowing skirt and a long, flowing wig. She sings with joyful abandon; she is beautiful and sexy. Her portrayal encourages me to embrace and express my inner middle-aged goddess, too.
All of the featured women in this show are lusty in one way or another. Susan Smith gives Fastrada, Pippin’s coldly glamorous mother, a bitchy mischievousness that made me want to slap her. (The character, not the actor.) I felt sorry for her handsome younger son, Lewis (Joshua Breece), because of the way she both infantilizes him and behaves as if she wants him for a lover, but he takes his thumb out of his mouth when she turns away, so maybe there is hope for him yet.
Heidi VanSlambrook plays sweet Catherine, Pippin’s savior and love interest. VanSlambrook’s voice is exquisite. I laughed in sympathy over her obsession with the arch of Pippin’s foot – sexual attraction is so often a mystery, isn’t it!
Her singing of “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man” is heartbreaking, especially since Douglas Messinger gives Pippin such an appealing complexity: both boy-like and man-like, funny and moving. His singing is potent as well.
Ray Middleton as Charles makes an impressive father and king. He is a man with a ton of responsibility and enormous ambitions, but still a man just doing the best he can with what he knows at the time.
The Players are like circus performers: all shapes and sizes, and creepy-attractive. They play a variety of roles within Pippin’s story, from Visigoths to Monks to Bed Dancers. They include (in alphabetical order): Michaela Adams, William Andrews, Chelsie Caldwell, Mason Corbin, Shawn Evans, Sarah Hoback, Windi Hornsby, Mark P. Jackson, Casey Lewinski, Bradley Lowe, Kyrsten Pruitt, Matt Riegel, Lacey Ring-Verbik, Sarah Schultz, and Krystal Sommers.
I loved the sword swallowing that one of the Players, Krystal Sommers, performs just for a few moments in the first act. This is only one example of the many intriguing details that the Players contribute to the show.
The final magic trick, in which another player “burns up” in a giant box, is impressive, too. Robert Wolanin was the show’s magic consultant.
I think this production was a stretch for some of the people involved with it, including the director and the Leading Player. After the show on Friday night, director Brian Hartz told me that this was his first time to direct a musical. He hadn’t expected there to be so many parts in it to pull together – not parts as in roles but parts as in aspects, ingredients, elements.
Also on Friday night, actor Dane Rogers told me that he hadn’t been sure he could do this role that had been made famous by Ben Verreen. Rogers has some singing experience but not very much dancing experience. When he auditioned, he had not even put “Leading Player” as a role for which he wanted to be considered.
However, the courage of these two men in stretching themselves creatively and artistically has paid off. The show is enjoyable and fascinating, as I have already said. Rogers is a perfectly controlling ringmaster in the “twisted little carnival we call ‘Pippin'” (director Hartz’ words.) Rogers sings beautifully, and he looks comfortable dancing, even if he doesn’t feel comfortable.
And Hartz, rather than try to pull everything together himself, persuaded several talented people to help him, including experienced choreographers Melissa Schott and Jennie Heazeltine. The dancing throughout the show is both clever and suited to the individual experience levels of the dancers, which means they execute it well…all of which makes it very fun to watch. (Dance captains included Chelsie Caldwell, Casey Lewinski, Sarah Schultz, and Bradley Lowe.)
The minimal but beautiful set, designed by technical director Gabriel G. Gula, includes some fabulous, old-timey circus posters and a versatile platform.
(Set constructed by Gabriel G. Gula, Jeremy M. Cales, Sarah Hoback, Jason Bell, Michael Schmidt, Kyla Rae England, Robert Wolanin, and Michaela Adams. The scenic artist was Karla Ries. Scenic painters included Karla Ries, Jeremy M. Cales, Adrienne Reiswerg, Kyrsten Pruitt, Ashley Shonting, Cheryl Broughton, Brian G. Hartz, Gus Pearcy, and Karen Webster.)
The props contribute a lot to the humor in this show. King Charles plans his war campaigns using Peds candy dispensers on a board game map, for example. During the battle itself, numerous body parts fly through the air. (Karen Webster is properties mistress. Properties runner is Bayley Godzeski.)
Don Drennen’s lighting and sound design includes gorgeous “stained glass” windows and an even more gorgeous sun silhouette.
The bewitching, circus-y costumes, make-up, and hairstyles were designed by Julie Powers. Vanya Mooneyham is the makeup and hair artist. Dressers include Brittany Messer, Julie Dutcher, and Bayley Godzeski.
The assistant stage manager is Beth Knight-Crum. The light board operator is stage manager Jeremy C. Cales. The sound board operator is Don Drennen. Drennen and Cales are also the electricians. Nathanael Crum and Michael Hampton operate the spotlights. Backstage crew technicians include Beth Knight-Crum, Ashley Shonting, Cheryl Broughton, Julie Dutcher, Roger Dutcher, Bayley Godzeski, and Brittany Messer.
At one point in the show, Pippin almost falls into the open orchestra pit. It is fun to know that the musicians are down there. Also, they sound good. The conductor and pianist is Ginger Stoltz. Kyleigh Renick is on bass. Patrick Pauloski is on cello. David Rugger is on violin. Paul Smith is on guitar. Audra Sloan is on harp. Dale Brinker is on drums. Nick Phillip and Brendan Jones are on percussion. Daisy Chew and Jay Rifkind are on “reed.” Frank Plettner and John Sweet are on trombone. Ron Lafeber and Edward Zlaty are on on trumpet. Chris Selby is on horn.
Wayne Township Community Theatre’s production of “Pippin” runs one more weekend, through August 17, 2008. The Ben Davis High School Theatre is fairly large, so tickets are usually available at the door. You may also call 317-390-0363 to make a reservation. Note: Friday and Saturday performances begin at 7:30pm (not 8:00pm, as you might expect.) The show ends around 10:00pm, with one intermission. The seats are blissfully comfortable.
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com