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Glory!: "Pippin," at St. Ambrose University through April 20 PDF Print E-mail
Theatre - Reviews
Written by Mike Schulz   
Saturday, 19 April 2008 06:45

Ryan Westwood, Emily Kurash, Seth Kaltwasser, and Jeremy Pack in PippinGranted, I'm twice the age of most of the show's cast members, but is it unseemly to admit that St. Ambrose University's production of Pippin is sexy as hell?

Hopefully not, because I think we can all agree that confidence can be sexy, and talent can be really sexy, and on April 18, the school's opening-night presentation of this musical comedy exuded these qualities like nobody's business. The original Broadway production of this Holy Roman Empire lark was directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse, and given the splendidly imaginative direction by Corinne Johnson and choreography by Shellee Frazee, St. Ambrose's Pippin is just what a Fosse revamp should be - the show is simultaneously hot and very, very cool.

It probably won't take more than half a minute to glean this, as that's the point at which Seth Kaltwasser first slithers on stage. Outfitted in a sleek black ensemble complemented by a white jacket, Kaltwasser's Leading Player - the narrator and de facto puppet-master of Pippin's self-described "anecdotal revue" - looks like he just strolled in from a late night at Cabaret's Kit Kat Klub; androgynous and insinuating, Kaltwasser (sporting eye shadow and spiky blond locks) greets us with reptilian charm, and moves with the ease of an actor who knows he has the audience in the palm of his hand and intends to keep us there.

Ryan Westwood and Emily Kurash in PippinThe production's opening number is spectacular for many reasons - Brian Hemesath's costumes, which are practically characters themselves, display a thrilling, neo-punk wit; the Leading Player's magic tricks, performed with off-handed panache, are legitimately magical. Yet it's Kaltwasser's deviously enjoyable star turn that truly hints at Pippin's greatness-to-come. Nothing about the actor's portrayal in the show is expected, even if (like myself) you've witnessed his deeply committed, inventive work in previous St. Ambrose offerings; Kaltwasser assumes a role that's almost purely conceptual and lends it dry humor, physical grace, and vocal dynamism. You can sense his hesitation when hitting high notes, but Kaltwasser's light falsetto in these moments isn't bothersome, because they're the only occasions in Pippin when he isn't fearless.

Sharing leading-actor duties here is Ryan Westwood as the show's title character, and he's as sincere and spellbinding as Kaltwasser is snaky and spellbinding. Westwood has given a rather remarkable series of performances this season, and his Pippin seems to embody the best elements of all of them; he's as passionate and forceful as he was in All My Sons, as effortlessly empathetic as he was in Charlotte's Web, and as comedically assured as he was in God's Favorite. He's also - and this is no afterthought - an awfully fine singer, possessing a richness of sound that tends to give an audience happy shivers. (Westwood has an Act II solo titled "Extraordinary," and that pretty much sums up his work as a whole.)

But this Pippin is practically overflowing with memorable portrayals. Sarah Catherine Ulloa - she of the mischievous grin and soaring soprano - is a hot-tamale hoot as Pippin's step-monster, Fastrada, and playing her muscle-bound, war-minded son, Lewis, Jeremy Pack is a hilarious lunkhead who's far too willing to serve as mom's (literal) whipping boy; the two perform a familial pas de deux here to give Freud himself the shakes. (What a pleasure to see Pack again, in his first mainstage production since 2005's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.) The ever-jovial Dan Hernandez has terrific fun as a Charlemagne who's only half as magisterial as he wants to be - the actor's asides, in which he offers grateful thanks for our recognition of his hard work, are wholly endearing - and Keith Haan's drag act as Pippin's feisty grandmother is a risky choice that pays off handsomely; the wonderful Haan plays the role so simply and honestly that his brassy solo feels like the least cheeky sequence in the show.

Jeremy Pack and Ryan Westwood in PippinI've watched Emily Kurash in numerous productions over the years, and have never seen (or heard) her perform with so much understated grace and vibrancy; her Catherine here is a radiant, albeit comically eccentric, romantic ideal, and she pulls off a series of tricky emotional transitions with aplomb. (Her sparrings with Kaltwasser have true bite.) And fifth-grader Andrew Hall - toting around a doomed pet duck - is more adorable than any child who shouts "Bite me!" has the right to be. Hall, whose mopey trudging across the stage is one of the production's best gags, clearly has talent, and he's been directed superbly.

There's barely a sequence in Pippin that hasn't been. In addition to bringing out the absolute best in her cast, Johnson peppers the show with sterling comic bits - the removal of Pippin's tap shoes was especially sharp - and takes maximum advantage of her use of multi-media projections center-stage; during the show's demanding "Glory" number, Johnson's images of the brutality, and devastating irony, of modern warfare made its point without ever feeling like a harangue. (And I wouldn't think of giving away the joke, but be on the lookout for the priceless, projected visual involving "high ways" and "bi ways.") With Frazee providing exuberant, wildly entertaining dance steps, the group numbers here are performed with style and impressive precision; I don't think a single minute passed in Pippin in which I wasn't grinning.

I would've grinned more had I the magical ability to rewind moments and experience them over and over again: Frazee's brilliant log-roll in "Corner of the Sky," a miracle of cleverly-orchestrated choreography; her husband Brad Frazee's beautiful star-light effect in "Morning Glow"; Charlemagne telling Pippin of his plan to bring Christianity to the modern world "even if we have to kill every non-believer to do it"; the eyebrow-raising sauciness of the ensemble's "With You" number; Lewis giving a battle update and then quickly returning to his iPod. From first scene to last, Pippin is a tremendously good time at the theatre, and I hope St. Ambrose is proud of its accomplishment. I'm thinking Bob Fosse would be.

 

For tickets, call (563) 333-6251.

 

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written by Tyson Danner, April 23, 2008
A fantastic show! My only regret is that I had to leave early when I went back to see it a second time!
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written by Theatre Fan, April 23, 2008
Kudos to everyone involved. While we could debate whether "Pippin" is a worthy musical, but the talent at SAU on both the student and faculty sides seems to be consistently impressive. This year in particular, their productions of "Beauty Queen of Leenane," "All My Sons," "[sic]" and "Stop Kiss" were all excellent and "Pippin" continued that. Can't wait for next year!
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written by schqc, April 24, 2008
I've had the great fortune to see Ben Vereen in this show in St. Louis. Probably the single best acting performance that I've ever seen. But Keith Haan as the grandmother...that has got to be something else.
Dang shame its not still playing.
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written by Jennifer Kingry, April 25, 2008
And I had the good fortune to see Irene Ryan in the role of Berthe. Frankly, having Keith Haan play the role left me flat - a song that is meant to be a wry observation on life from an aged woman became a novelty act. Yes, as Mike said, they played it pretty straight, which then begs the question: what was the point in having a man play this role then? If there wasn't any kind of point, am I to conclude there aren't any older women in the area capable of singing one song?

As for the rest of the show...I'm glad I went. But the person I took with me, who had heard me brag up the show based on my own recollections from 30 years ago, and bolstered by Mike's very positive review...well, all I can say is, I got the "you drug me out to see this?!" look at intermission.

While I thought it was very good for a college production, it brought home once again the reason why Fosse shows are not revived frequently at the amateur level. My memories of the show may have been filled with long, lanky, sinewy dancers performing sensuous dance moves highlighting body isolations, but what I saw here was healthy corn-fed Midwestern lads and lasses doing their level best, dancing Fosse Lite, with decidedly mixed results. It seemed that only two or three in the ensemble were really comfortable and capable in the sinewy body move department. And, being overly familiar with the music perhaps, I couldn't help but notice each time a singer dropped an octave, talk/sang or just plained fluffed a high section.

As I said, I'm glad I went. My guest - not so much, concluding "it didn't come up to 'Urinetown'." I blame the late, great Fosse for that more than SAU theater.
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written by Theatre Fan, April 25, 2008
Jennifer,

"Good for a college production" is a pretty back-handed compliment. A lot of college productions take more chances and present better production than many of our local community theatres.

While I think you make some valid points, the remark about the size of the dancers is a cheap shot. Why not just say "the dancing wasn't as good as it could have been" instead of insulting the people who were clearly trying their best, if not always succeeding. You could even blame the director for casting them in the first place, but when physical appearance starts entering into ones critiques, they seem mean-spirited.

I agree that it's hard to recreate the Fosse style without professionals, but the same could be said about Brecht or Shakespeare for that matter. Should amatuers avoid them as well? Mamet has a distinct style, add him to the list and so on. They took a chance and got some mixed results. I'm much more inclined to give them credit then I am to companies who choose fluff and treat it like it's creme brulee.

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written by Jennifer Kingry, April 26, 2008
"Good for a college production" wasn't meant to be backhanded but rather pretty straightforward.

College theater departments necessarily rely heavily on students
from within the department, whether or not they always fit the physical dimensions, ages or abilities required by any specific show. How many times have you seen a 20-year old playing a 60-year old in a college production? It's forgiven because, frankly, it's expected. The young people are there to be educated and trained, so you are sometimes going to see them in roles they'd never be cast in outside a college production.

Likewise, I realize that SAU's department may not be loaded with trained dancers. As I said earlier, it appeared they were giving their best. In my opinion, the results were mixed - meaning, some moments were good, some...eh...not so much.

I strongly disagree with your statement lumping Shakespeare, Brecht, Mamet, etc. in with Fosse, nor was it ever my intention to suggest amateurs should never attempt material that has a distinctive "style." You're putting words in my mouth.

The weakest element of nearly every amateur musical production - nine times out of ten - is the dancing. Why? Because everyone has experience talking, and loads of people have experience singing, not just on their own, but in church and in school choirs. Many people have had some kind of vocal training during their lifetime. Very few people have formal dance training, much less the very specialized kind of jazz movement that is Fosse choreography. (Put it this way: I can "do" Shakespeare, but I couldn't wiggle one little Fosse-like toe on my stiff and jumbo-sized body.)

I think the SAU production captured the essence of Fosse without trying to go the whole nine yards, hence I called it Fosse Lite. To the extent that they were successful, bravo! To the extent that some moments looked muddled or hesitant, um...okay then.

Look, for me, the show wasn't an unqualified success on all counts, but it was good enough to make me glad I drove 35 miles and paid $15 to see it. The person who was with me didn't feel the same. So?

If I seemed to take a cheap shot at the ensemble, I apologize. But yeah, I do think some styles of choreography are inherently more difficult than others if you aren't starting out with a dancer's body and flexibility.

"Pippin" was a show that meant the world to me when I first saw it, at age 20. It doesn't get revived often at this level. I believe that's because of the dancing, but that's just my guess. It does get done frequently at the high school level, however. That may seem like a contradiction, but my theory is that most high schools just skip the Fosse part and do it as a straight musical. Most of what seemed "risque" about the show "back in the day" stemmed from the choreography. It's basic substance - wherein a young man explores different avenues of leading his life, and ultimately rejects war, politics, sensual pleasures, etc. in order to find domestic simplicity with a wife and child - plays to perfectly well to middle-class sensibilities, and the PTA.

Not sure what to make of the "fluff" vs. "creme brulee" reference; apparently I don't do enough fine dining! However, I believe "Pippin" is generally regarded as a rather "fluffy" musical.

And, to return to the distinction I was making in my first comment, SAU's "Urinetown" was strong enough, across the board, that I really don't think I'd see a better show put on by professionals in Chicago. With "Pippin", I think I might (if I didn't, I'd want my money back.)
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written by Theatre Fan, April 26, 2008
I did not mean to put words into your mouth. I merely took the comment that "While I thought it was very good for a college production, it brought home once again the reason why Fosse shows are not revived frequently at the amateur level" to mean that you think college kids shouldn't try Fosse.

If a show's success rides on how good the dancing is, maybe that's a more damning criticism of the material they're working with than anything else

You're right that watching college age students perform in shows that they couldn't do anywhere else requires a leap of faith. But for that matter so does most community theatre, and really when you think about watching theatre period takes a willing suspension of disbelief. To say something is "good for a _________ production" implys that you only expected the show to be so good in the first place.

To me any theatre experience should start with telling a good story and then move on to how the story was executed. I personally think "Pippin" takes too long to make its point, which makes it a tough show to do in the first place. You have provide a lot of magic, so to speak, to distract the audience from the fact that not much of importance has happened in the first act.

Sorry if my desert metaphor was confusing. That's what I get for posting before dinner. :) I mean to say that if all we did was chose easy, light shows, theatre would be incrediblt boring. When we choose challenging shows that take a higher level of care and precision, we run the risk of not meeting all challenges, but the joys of meeting those challenges is exhilerating to watch and to perform.
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written by Tyson Danner, April 26, 2008
Jennifer - I don't really see "Pippin" as a "fluffy" musical. I think it has a great deal of meaning and a clear message. In particular, I didn't feel like this production pulled any punches.

However, I do agree with your comments on the dancing. As someone who had never seen the show, I thought the dancing was fitting and worked very well. If the first production I saw had featured top-notch, intense dancing, I probably would have found this production wanting. "Fosse Lite" is a good description! (Though it could be read to be a bit snide. Just another danger of this online format.)

Theatre Fan - I'd disagree that "not much of importance" happens in the first act. I enjoyed witnessing each of Pippin's attempts to discover his identity, and I thought it all fit together quite well. Granted, it's not exactly the typical scene-by-scene plot progression that most audiences are accustomed to. Nevertheless, after seeing this production, it's filed in my brain under "Shows To Do Some Day"!
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written by Jennifer Kingry, April 26, 2008
And, there you go again, ;)reinterpreting my words for me: “pretty good for a college production” does not imply I “only expected the show to be so good in the first place.” That’s your inference. Actually, quite the contrary is true. Armed with my memories of the show, my recent experience of SAU’s “Urinetown” and, bolstered by Mike’s review, I went with high expectations. (Note to self: must stop reading the reviews before I go to see a show.) The friend I dragged along knew only my recommendation that “it sounds like it’s a great production.” She was seriously underwhelmed; I was mildly disappointed.

I’ve tried to determine the source of my disappointment and it seems I’ve centered on the dancing. (I did mention in my original comment to say that the production looked great—super costuming, set, lighting, etc. I didn’t feel the need to do that or talk about individual performances because the review and other comments above seemed to have those covered.)

Nor do I necessarily find it “damning criticism” if a show’s success rides on the quality of its dancing. For gosh sake – we are talking about musical theater! Hardly the place one traditionally looks to find intricate plotting, profound character development, or scintillating dialogue. Setting aside the works of Stephen Sondheim and a few others, the books of most musicals are pretty thin.

But, yes, I think most of the shows associated as “Fosse shows” do rely heavily on the dancing. There’s not a whole lot there to many of the shows he both directed and choreographed (including “Sweet Charity”, “Pippin”, “Chicago”, “Dancin’”, and “Big Deal”) if you strip them of the dancing. I set aside “Cabaret” because, although Fosse directed and choreographed the film, he did neither on the original production, so it has a life aside from Fosse.

SAU’s Pippin got to the point a lot sooner than did the professional production, where many dance sequences were extended (as I recall, “Glory” ran something like 8 minutes or so, with a long dance break by the Leading Player and two female dancers.) But then, the dancing in that production was mesmerizing. And perhaps that was the whole point.

Pippin has always been a case of style over substance. The show wasn’t doing very well in its initial Broadway run until Fosse cut the first ever television commercial for a Broadway show – a commercial that featured the dancing of Ben Vereen in the aforementioned “Glory” dance break. You are absolutely right when you say it relies on producing a lot of “magic” to keep the audience distracted, but I might go further than you to say not only doesn’t much happen in the first act, not a lot happens in the second either!

Bear in mind, the show was written by Stephen Schwartz at a very young age. I believe he began it while he was still in college, though it didn’t premiere until after “Godspell.” From comments I’ve read about high school productions, the show is very popular with teenagers, probably for much the same reason I was enthralled when I first saw it. As a 20-year old, struggling to figure out what I wanted to do to “give meaning” to my life (and all to prone to speculation that life wasn’t really worth living after all), I felt every song in the show was aimed directly at ME. (Can’t say I’d ever experienced that hearing “Do Re Mi” or “Surrey With the Fringe on the Top.”)

Obviously, what makes a musical “worthy” is a long discussion that doesn’t belong here. (I’m a Sondheim fan, so my choices are definitely influenced by his work.) However, I’m a strong believer that the theater embraces a big wide range of experience. I don't find “Pippin” any less worthy a musical than another, because it relies more heavily on dance while another has stronger songs. It falls into the category of being simultaneously light (substance) and difficult (style).

I applaud SAU for doing the show. I agree, too, that they presented a strong season and continually tackle challenging shows. Frankly, that’s exactly what I expect college theater departments to do. They serve as an educational experience, not only for the participants but for the public as well. And their continuance is less dependent upon the “butts in seats” rule that local community theaters live and die by. (“Beauty Queen of Leenane”-- I can’t tell you how many times that has been rejected by local community theater reading committees!)

Yes, all theater requires a willing suspension of disbelief, and I try to into every show I see with heart that’s willing to play along. That doesn’t mean my eyes and ears and brain get left outside. SAU, like all our theater groups, deserves “credit” for trying. But that doesn’t mean we have to completely ignore flaws. Apparently, others didn’t see flaws. My guest and I did. Nevertheless, I am glad they did the show and glad I got to see it again.
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written by Theatre Fan, April 27, 2008
Jennifer,
I refuse to accept that just because a show is a musical, it gets a pass from the kind of script and character criticisms we might give to a play. I enjoy good spectacle as much as the next guy, but that only gets me so far as an audience member. If a musical is truly great, the characters and story are as memorable as the songs or the dancing. "Chicago" is a great example of a Fosse-style show that does that. I don't think "Pippin" is. Perhaps if it was done in the intimate setting of a theatre such as The Green Room, I might see something different.

I certainly don't think we should not criticise SAU's production, or any college production for that matter. Constructive criticism can only help in the educational world. My criticisms of this show lie more with the show itself than with the production, yours seem to be reverse. But isn't that the great thing about theatre?
:)
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written by schqc, April 27, 2008
We ALL can do shakespeare or we ALL can sing I find amazingly distressing. Very few people can "do" shakespeare well or sing well at all. Many people make do (especially with godawful sound systems) but most are crappy singers with a mistaken notion of what it is to sing or act for that matter.

Dancing requires the same discipline. Everyone can walk, eh?

Just because more people are ignorant about good singing is not the same as saying everyone can sing well. Same goes for acting.

As for Pippin. The show's very good (not great, but good). The one piece I love is from the first act "Glory, Glory!".

Strangely enough when I saw it, except for Ben Vereen, very few of the dancers could sing. This I found very distracting. Its a shame that broadway (and slowly creeping into opera too) great voices and actors are being replaced by the decent triple threats (singing, dancing, actors). Very good is not excellent. The excellent are being tossed for the very good who are telegenic.

Anyway...back to your regular blog.

It's great to see in-depth theater discussion on any forum.

Keep up with the complaints!
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written by Jennifer Kingry, April 28, 2008
Theater Fan: I agree with you in not giving musicals a total "pass" on story and character criticisms. However, I also think, given the amount of time dedicated to song and dance in such shows (hence, "musicals") they have less book time to devote to those other aspects. Most good shows are able to use the numbers to forward plot and develop characters but, a long time ago, those were simply song-and-dance breaks.

Moreover, the point I was trying to get across (badly) is that not all musicals set out to be the same thing, any more than all plays do. Starlight Express is not The Last 5 Years. I try to view each play/musical on its own terms. Pippin is a picaresque journey, with a who's hero more like Candide than he is a rogue. (Maybe the Leading Player is the rogue.) I don't think the characters are meant to be people so much as types.

But you're perfectly justified in preferring another style of musical, or just preferring a different musical of the same style. As you say...one of the great things about theater! Different strokes.

SHCQC: We ALL can do shakespeare or we ALL can sing I find amazingly distressing. Yep, I would find that allegation distressing myself, especially if I'd made it...but I didn't. I was trying to explain why it seems (to me) that dancing is usually the weakest element in most amateur musicals. Put it this way: the day I hold or attend tryouts for a non-professional musical, and everyone who auditions has just as much experience in stage dance as they do in singing and/or acting...I will know I've died and gone to New York!

Is it really true that opera is being infiltrated by telegenic dancers? Wow! I may have to start going again to check that out. ;)
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written by schqc, April 29, 2008
But I find that dancing isn't the weakest. I often find that actors and singers have little to no knowledge of how to use their voices well. That is because I am a singer. I am not a dancer. I have tons of experience dancing, yet it would near kill me to do fosse. Yet people will do terribly difficult music and unleash mediocre singers constantly. It's hard to fudge the music the way people think they can fudge the dance. Try singing "The Star Spangled Banner" masterfully. Now fake it.

Music is unforgiving. You must do the notes on the page. Now many people can sing the notes on the page, but do it well? Do it without a mic? Have the right phrasing? Unify the notes so it sounds like one voice singing smoothly, cooly, in command? Can you sing with your own voice or are you copying a CD?

If you listen, you will hear as many problems with singing and acting as you seem to see with dancing. That I could never see. I'm not a dancer.

BTW, yes, it is true that opera is being infiltrated by the telegenic. Go to New York, or watch them at Showcase. The days of the great voice are over. The sexy top notch mediocrity, like in most aspects of American society, is becoming dominant.

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written by Tyson Danner, April 29, 2008
I'm the same way, SCHQC. Since my training is in music, that's what I'm most eager to be picky with.

A choreographer can design dances that best suit the available talent. (Something that was done reasonably well with "Pippin", I'd say.) With music, on the other hand, the actor doesn't have that kind of wiggle room (with, of course, the exception of transposition!).
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written by Theatre Fan, April 29, 2008
I guess everybody looks at things differently. Since my background is more in acting, I'd rather see a great actor than a great singer. Of course, I'd love to see both, but I think if you are a good enough actor, you can connect with an audience despite vocal shortcomings. Look at Rex Harrison!
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written by Tyson Danner, April 29, 2008
There again, I think it depends on the show. Yes, an actor without vocal training could play Higgins, but that's the type the part was written for. But there are many other parts in musicals that I'd weigh the singing much more heavily. There's a point at which no amount of acting is going to make up for a lack of musical training. Of course, the reverse is true as well. Sometimes good singing just doesn't make up for bad acting!

The wonderful thing about the QC theatre community is that we just keep seeing more and more people turn up to auditions who really can do both!

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