Granted, 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.
The 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.
I'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.