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Pippin
Book by Roger O. Hirson, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Directed by Diane Paulus
Choreography by Chet Walker, in the style of Bob Fosse
Circus Creation by Gypsy Snider
Peabody Opera House
December 10, 2014

Kyle Dean Massey Photo by Joan Marcus Pippin National Tour

Kyle Dean Massey
Photo by Joan Marcus
Pippin National Tour

The current Broadway revival of Pippin is something I’ve wanted to see since I first heard about it. Since trips to New York are few and far between for me, I was thrilled when I found out that the US National Tour, based on the Broadway production, would be coming to St. Louis. The whole concept of turning this show into a circus struck me as ideal for this show, the clips I’ve seen of the Broadway cast have been great, and now the tour has given those of us who were unable to see it in New York the opportunity to see this brilliant new re-imagining of this classic show. The touring production, which opened last night at the Peabody Opera House, definitely does not disappoint. With all the color, style, and spectacle of the circus, as well as an extremely talented cast, this show has “Magic to Do” and it succeeds in casting its spell on the St. Louis audience.

I had seen Pippin before, both live and on video (the 1981 recording with Ben Vereen and William Katt), but this new version is notable in that while it gives the production a total makeover, it seems just as true to the vision of the script as the original staging, albeit with a new ending.  The circus setting, with all its art and artifice, is an ideal backdrop for this story of a young prince (Kyle Dean Massey) on a quest for an extraordinary life.  The Leading Player is played by a woman this time (Lisa Karlin on opening night, covering for principal Sasha Allen), and in fitting with the circus theme, she’s the ringmaster. She introduces and orchestrates the action of the show in an increasingly controlling manner that grows more and more sinister as the show continues.  Pippin’s story takes him on many adventures, and the Leading Player is there to make sure events turn out as she has planned.  It’s actually kind of a play within a play, with the conceit that this is a troupe of traveling performers putting on a show, although it all seems real for Pippin. His adventures involve conflicts with his father Charles, or Charlemagne (John Rubenstein), stepmother Fastrada (Sabrina Harper) and her son, the dim-witted, war-obsessed Lewis (Callan Bergmann).  As Pippin tries everything from war to hedonism, to art to prayer, he eventually ends up finding a degree of happiness in an “ordinary” life on a farm with the widowed Catherine (Kristine Reese) and her son Theo (Zachary Mackiewicz, Lucas Schultz alternating), but is it enough?  What does the Leading Player have to say, and what about the promised Grand Finale that we’ll remember for “the rest of our lives”?  You’ll have to watch to see how that turns out.

The show has been re-imagined, and the circus theme works very well to drive the story and add even more substance to the simple but alternately humorous and poignant story. Performers and trained acrobats perform acts on the flying trapeze, as well as tricks with hula hoops, exercise balls and more. Elements of magic and puppetry are also used. The choreography, by Chet Walker in the style of original 1972 Broadway choreographer Bob Fosse, is dynamic and creative, with elements such as a gender-switched (1 woman, 2 men instead of 1 man, 2 women) version of the famous “Manson Trio” dance break in the middle of the song “Glory” recreated and featuring the Leading Player and backing dancers Matthew DeGuzman and Borris York.  There’s lots of Fosse-style flash blended with the circus elements on songs such as the spectacular opening number “Magic to Do”, and elaborately choreographed production numbers like “Glory”, “Morning Glow”, “Extraordinary” and more. It’s a vibrant show with a dark edge that’s made all the darker by the revamped ending.  It’s full of style, charm, suspense and astounding feats of acrobatics and illusion.  The color scheme is full of vibrant purples, blues and reds, and the circus tent-styled scenery by Scott Pask and the ingenious costumes by Dominique Lemieux establish a consistent and memorable look the the production.

The cast here is extremely impressive. Karlin anchors the production as the stylish, dictatorial and occasionally menacing Leading Player. With her top-notch dance skills, great voice and loads of stage presence, one would never know she’s the understudy if the program didn’t say it.  Massey, who was a wonderful Tony in West Side Story at the Muny in 2013, is full of charm, magnetism and sympathy as Pippin, with a strong, clear voice and an open, youthful countenance. His earnest, plaintive “Corner of the Sky” is a musical highlight of the show. There’s excellent supporting work from Rubenstein (who played Pippin in the original 1972 production) as a particularly vainglorious Charles, as well as Harper in a gleefully vampish performance as Fastrada, Reese as an engaging and slightly goofy Catherine, and Lucie Arnaz in a show-stopping turn as Pippin’s grandmother Berthe, performing “No Time At All” with immense energy and wit.  The ensemble of dancers and circus performers is in excellent form, as well, performing some truly astounding stunts with confidence and apparent ease.  It’s high-quality cast for a top-level touring production.

This tour is so good, it makes up for not being able to see the show on Broadway.  It’s full of charm, humor, drama, and all the things promised in the opening song, with a few twists–some thrilling, some terrifying–along the way. This is Pippin re-invented and re-invigorated, and it’s glorious.  It’s definitely a show not to be missed.

Pippin National Tour Cast Photo by Terry Shapiro

Pippin National Tour Cast
Photo by Terry Shapiro

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Ghost the Musical
Book and Lyrics by Bruce Joel Rubin
Music and Lyrics by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard
Based on the on Paramount Pictures Film Written by Bruce Joel Rubin

Original Broadway Production Directed by Matthew Warchus

Choreographed by Ashley Wallen

Peabody Opera House

March 25, 2014

Steven Grant Douglas Photo by Joan Marcus Ghost the Musical Tour

Steven Grant Douglas
Photo by Joan Marcus
Ghost the Musical Tour

When I first heard that the well-known 1990 film Ghost had been turned into a musical that played in London’s West End and then on Broadway, I have to admit I was skeptical. I’m a little weary of the recent trend of musicalizing popular films, and I wasn’t sure if Ghost needed to be a musical. After seeing the current Troika national tour–based on the Broadway production–at the Peabody Opera House, I’m still not sure this adaptation was entirely necessary, although I did find it entertaining, full of flashy and stunning visuals and some good performances.

This musical, like the movie it’s based on, tells the story of Sam Wheat (Steven Grant Douglas), a successful young banker with a life that seems too good to be true. He has a job he loves, a great loft in Brooklyn, and a loving girlfriend in artist Molly (played at this performance by understudy Andrea Rouch).  As Sam and Molly look forward to a happy life together, Sam is suddenly and brutally murdered in what appears to be a mugging gone wrong. Instead of moving on into the afterlife, however, Sam finds himself stranded on Earth as a ghost. After meeting a few other ghosts who give him a few pointers (in the song “You Gotta Let Go”), Sam follows Molly and soon finds out more about his murder and the involvement of his co-worker and former best friend Carl (Robby Haltiwanger). Upon a chance meeting with self-proclaimed psychic and con artist Oda Mae Brown (Carla R. Stewart), Sam finds that he can communicate with Oda Mae and sets out to get a message to Molly before anything bad can happen to her.

The plot follows the film fairly closely, including the famous song “Unchained Melody” that was so prominently featured in the movie. The rest of the songs are original, though, and most aren’t particularly memorable.  The songs that do make a positive impression include Oda Mae’s introduction song, the gospel and disco influenced “Are You a Believer?”, Molly’s poignant solo “With You”, the Act Two opener “Rain/Hold On” and Oda Mae’s Act Two showstopper “I’m Outta Here”.  Aside from these songs, though, I find it difficult to remember much of the score, although it’s mostly well-sung by the youthful cast (many of whom are recent college graduates).  It’s a smoothly-told story but the young cast (especially the ensemble) doesn’t always bring the energy, and live theatre is about energy ultimately. I do think the show got better as it went along, though, and the finale was particularly moving and well-done.

Still, this is an engaging show for the most part, with some strong performances by the lead performers, particularly Stewart as the feisty Oda Mae and understudy Rouch as the at first hopeful and then grieving Molly. Douglas looks and sounds good as Sam, but is somewhat lacking in stage presence in this pivotal role, especially at the beginning of the show.  He does gain strength as he goes along, and he does well in his scenes with Rouch and Stewart. Haltiwanger is fine as Carl, but like a lot of this cast, I wish he had more energy and presence.  Brandon Curry makes a memorable impression as a surly Subway Ghost who becomes Sam’s reluctant mentor.

The biggest strength of this production is in its physical look and special effects, re-created from the Broadway production.  It’s a very flashy show set-wise, making use of many projections including city scenes and images of people, as well as moving images to represent the subway cars and an elevator.  The special effects, such as those used to make objects fly around the stage, and people “rise up” out of their bodies when they become ghosts or are carried into the afterlife (surrounded by an ethereal silvery white light for good guys, and angry red lights for bad guys).   Kudos to the whole team that designed and/or re-created the lighting (Hugh Vanstone, Joel Shier), video projections (Jon Driscoll) and Illusions (Paul Kieve).  It’s a stunning technical production with a sleek, updated look set in the present day rather than in the movie’s era of the early 1990’s.  The effects and visuals help keep the story moving, and some of the special effects even drew applause from the audience.

Ghost is an ambitious production that manages to entertain despite its drawbacks. I’m glad I was able to see this show, although I do think that it will be frequently compared to the film, and it doesn’t quite live up to that comparison.  For what it is, though, it works well enough, and I was able to follow the story of Sam, Molly, Oda Mae and the rest of the cast with interest and some emotion, especially at the end.  I do think that with a little more energy, this show could be even better.  It was worth seeing, however, and I think anyone who enjoys a good simple love story with a lot of flashy special effects should enjoy it.

Carla R. Stewart (center) and ensemble Photo by Joan Marcus Ghost The Musical US Tour

Carla R. Stewart (center) and ensemble
Photo by Joan Marcus
Ghost The Musical US Tour

 

 

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