Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Pippin is Perfect

The Venus Rising Company is presenting a very innovative version of Stephen Schwartz's Pippin as its final show of the 2000-01 season. Presenting a full scale musical on a studio floor measuring about the size of three large living rooms is no mean feat. However, once again this company succeeds with a vibrant and pulsating presentation of the 1972 musical.

Pippin ran for 1,944 performances at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway with Ben Vereen, John Rubinstein, and the great Irene Ryan. The cast also boasted young and upcoming actresses Jill Clayburgh and Ann Reinking. Mr. Vereen won the Tony that year for his performance as Leading Player.

My second experience with the musical was the television version on Showtime (with William Katt, Martha Raye, and Chita Rivera). There was also a touring company, and a company from Los Angeles attempted to present the musical. It was a disastrous production and even the wonderful Nanette Fabaray could not save the show.

Stephen Schwartz, Pippin's composer, has allowed numerous variations of the musical through the years. Some have even updated the musical to the 1920s and '30s and set in this country. It has become a staple of every high school, college and regional theater.

The Venus Rising Company follows the original staging with some very slight revisions. As you enter the small studio space with about 90 seats and seating on three sides of the floor you are greeted by Leading Player, played with great vitality by Reed Farley, who tells the audience they will have some interaction with the players. Audience members in the front row are about three feet from the players. My mate was involved when he was asked to play a small non-speaking role in the second act. He was "to be a present for Theo, the son of Catherine". He was rejected.

Leading Player announces that they will present a play with the ensemble portraying an acting troop in the song "Magic to Do". The chorus of young talented players is superb. They tell the story of the lost young man called Pippin, the first-born son of Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor. Pippin longs to discover the secret of true happiness and fulfillment. We see the escapades that take him from the glories of the battle field to the temptation of the flesh and finally to the intrigues of power. In despair, Pippin thinks that he has no hope for achieving his complete fulfillment and collapses on the floor

In the second act, Catherine, a widow with a large estate, comes by and sees the young man laying on the floor. She has an attraction to "his foot" and nurses him back to health. A much more intelligible story proceeds with the lovely songs "Extraordinary" and "Love Song," sung by Pippin and Catherine. In this production Theo is played by a small statured girl and she has no singing part. However, Kim Hidalgo had no problem convincing the audience of the gender.

There are many highlights in this resonating production. Michele Krapp, a member of the ensemble, plays her big scene as Berthe to the hilt. She leads the audience in singing "No Time At All," and makes the scene her own. Fastrada (Nancy D'Addario), a conniving and sexy stepmother and Louis (Adam Elsberry), her narcissistic son and half-brother of Pippin, are convincing in their roles and demonstrate remarkable chemistry as they sing and romp in the song, "Spread a Little Sunshine".

Scott Phillips gives a regal performance as King Charlemagne, especially in the number "War is a Science," with the chorus sitting on boxes in back of him doing what are basically the same movements as in the original. Reed Farley is outstanding as the Leading Player, with a clear crystalline voice. Mr. Farley is a young New York actor with many credits in his biography, and is also the choreographer of the show.

Director Kevin T. Morales was lucky to find a talent like Sean Griffin to embrace the title role, with movie star good looks and a voice that can swell with emotion. His rendition of "My Little Corner of the Sky," with all of its reprises through out the production, is top drawer.

The choreography by Reed Farley is superb; about 80% Farley and 20% Fosse. The dancing by the athletic, multi-talented cast in their slinky costumes is superior. The cast uses a minimum of sets and props and most are "picked up along the way". The musical direction is by Tyler Lincoln who uses a piano and electronic keyboard. Members of the ensemble use hand drums on several of the numbers.

Once again, Kevin T. Morales has provided a taut directorial flare to this musical. He is from New York and has worked for The Public Theater, the New York Shakespeare Festival and Roundabout Theatre Company in that city. He now directs or co-directs all of the productions at Venus Rising. He was recently honored by Diablo Magazine as one of the 21 new visionaries of the Bay Area.

Pippin runs until May 17 at the Knight Stage 3 Theatre in the Dean Lesher Regional Arts Center in Walnut Creek, California. Tickets are $26; $20 for seniors. Call 925-943-7469 for tickets.

The Venus Rising Company will begin their second season on July 5 with a production of the Neil Simon - Cy Coleman musical comedy Little Me. This will be followed by Triumph of Love, then an original holiday musical will be followed by Sondheim's Passion and the season will end with Fosse's classic Chicago.

Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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