There was plenty of magic to do last Friday night as Theatre Charlotte opened their new production of Pippin at the Queens Road barn. Opening night took place in the wake of a dazzling Broadway Lights reveal of a star-studded touring version of Into the Woods at Belk Theater just three nights earlier. That compounded the new challenges already added by the 2013 Broadway revival of Stephen Schwartz’s 1972 hit — layering on new illusions, flying effects, circus acrobatics and fire.
Behind the scenes, budgets and available talent are also stressed and stretched. Theatre Charlotte is embarking on an unprecedented series of four consecutive shows, hosting performances of Detroit ’67 (opening May 26) and I and You (June 16) at the old barn through June 25 after an excursion to the Uptown Mint Museum, where Picasso at the Lapin Agile will pay a visit beginning on May 5.
With Pippin running through April 30, TC’s running crews are booked either at home or on the road for the next 10 weekends.
At first blush, it was tough for me to escape the notion that Woods witch Montego Glover’s wardrobe alone — not to mention her paycheck — was more expensive than this entire pipsqueak Pippin production.
But the five-piece stage band directed by Lindsey Schroeder is tight, the ensemble directed by director/choreographer Lisa Blanton is brash and teeming with pro-grade talent, and the dance stylings by Sterling Masters-Deeney (home from a 12-year stint with the Broadway company of Wicked) are besprinkled with Fosse hands and pizzazz.
Before he composed Wicked, Schwartz wasn’t exactly sold on serious storytelling, so it isn’t difficult to swap out the narrative frameworks of Godspell and Pippin — not for directors and most of the design team, anyway.
For the acting troupe, most of whom are billed as Players, and for those designing the new Pippin effects and teaching performers how to execute them, it’s a different story. A granny on a trapeze? The original Javert from Les Miz learning parlor tricks? Tall orders.
Community theatre companies have scaled-down prep schedules as well as SlimFast budgets, so there are a few times — particularly when fire is involved — when you’ll need to brace yourself for disappointment. Otherwise, the acrobatics, the sawed woman and the levitation stunt overachieved magnificently. Who knows, maybe by the second weekend, the kinks will be ironed out of the flame-throwings.
With Nehemiah Lawson as the Leading Player and Bart Copeland in the title role, both emerging from the ensemble of Theatre Charlotte’s Something Rotten, the bulk of Schwartz’s music and lyrics is in good hands. Lawson is a powerful presence and an excellent dancer, and the costume Beth Killion has designed for him strongly suggests black magic wizardry.
Yet Lawson sometimes undercuts his own authority when he appears to be striving to precisely execute the choreography instead of taking over his moves, manhandling them, and making them his own.
The flimsy book by Roger O. Hirson is already lax in reminding us that the Leading Player is in charge of all the other players and their storytelling, so Lawson’s occasional spasms of fidelity don’t help. Yet his scenes with Sophie Lanser as the flawed and recalcitrant Catherine, Pippin’s true love, are beautifully calibrated in their give-and-take, and his climactic tantrum when Pippin rejects martyrdom is fairly breathtaking.
As Prince Pippin, Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne’s son, Copeland is disarmingly wholesome, earnest, and at ease. His dancing prowess seems to improve before our eyes as he ages, becoming more worldly and wise with an added grace that may stem from Copeland’s not taking himself seriously as a dancer.
That kind of modesty works well for the major Pippin role that hasn’t won two Tony Awards (Ben Vereen in 1973 and Patina Miller in 2014), particularly when you’re a protagonist who finds himself beaten down in life no matter which path you follows toward fulfillment, your ”Corner of the Sky.”
While we savor the blithe amorality of Darren Spencer as Charlemagne, more aristocratic zest emanates from two female royals. Reveling in her corruption as Fastrada, Charlemagne’s current wife, Alyson Lowe gets to scheme against both her Emperor husband and her stepson Pippin, slyly maneuvering to install her valorous dimwitted son Lewis on the throne. Louann Vaughan draws the sunnier role as Charlemagne’s mom, exiled from court by the conniving Fastrada.
Her sunnier song, “No Time at All,” is the catchiest, a carpe diem song from Granny that espouses hedonism to Pippin as a better path than ambition. It also draws some of the most surprising staging as Berthe proves she hasn’t sunk into stagnant retirement.
She’s as much of an opposite of Catherine as the cold-blooded Fastrada, for Lanser quickly forms a domesticated trio with Copeland and Logan Campbell as the widow’s son Theo, bonding together in the precious “Prayer for a Duck.”
Common farmer she may be — and maybe, according to Leading Player, the lowliest actor in the troupe — but Lanser reminds us she isn’t a doormat, aggressively seeking out a replacement husband when she’s on script in the Leading Player’s story and then pugnaciously inserting a song that he has not approved. Catherine needs Pippin and her “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man” is a long way from worshipful.
Matt Howie is the only other cast member who speaks, giving Pippin’s half-brother Lewis a surprisingly sweet tinge. After seeing him in numerous productions, most recently in Something Rotten, I’m not sure he can help it. Among the dozen dancers in unnamed roles, captains Georgie DeCosmo and Mitchell Dudas consistently excelled.
Charlton Alicia Tapp also stood out as a slick ballroom lizard, and lithe Riley Gray breathtakingly took acrobatic honors ascending and descending the silks.
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