Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Physical and Heady ‘Pippin’ Is Invigorating-Plus in De Pere

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In 25 words, “Pippin” in the hands of Birder Players is a stylish, physical, cerebral musical that dazzles as it explores life’s meaning in a show-business setting.

The production has many snappy points.

The opening number, “Magic to Do,” is in-your-face splashy. The setup of Broadway Theatre is such that action for the audience is RIGHT THERE, with the performance space but three feet from the front row.

Signaling that this production is going to be a humdinger is the presence of Zeb Metzler as the Leading Player, a kind of all-knowing emcee. Metzler is something of a Bob Fosse reincarnate. As a Broadway dancer/choreographer, Fosse mastered a special style of movement, a strut with flair. Fosse fit that into characters of wise aura and charm akin to a wolf schmoozing a lamb. Metzler exudes the look, manner and movement of an “I am” type of personality.

All around the Leading Player/Metzler in “Magic to Do” is a visual/aural explosion. Costuming has a circus-y feel, and dance action is laced with tough gymnastic moves. The company is wired to impress. The stimulating opening is a WOW.

The Leading Player weaves through the story to the end. The story is fractured history.  That history is used to get to big-think messages that give the musical weight (feeling like shovels full of heavy snow at times). The time is not mentioned, but Charlemagne is present from the turn of the ninth century. This Charlemagne has a son, Pippin. The show is not a history lesson but a take on philosophy as entertainment.

Pippin’s situation is expressed in program notes of astute director Alicia Birder: “The show urges the questions: What is my purpose? How far do we go to be extraordinary?”

Kyle James portrays the torn and mystified Pippin as he arrives back home fresh from college, dripping with idealism, ready to take on the world. James wraps himself into Pippin’s flowing song of goals, “Corner of the Sky,” with a yearning to be where his spirit can run free. James grabs a hold of the Pippin persona as Pippin rolls through a series of colorful experiences where satisfactions blow away like so many golden oak leaves in autumn.

Strong characters/strong cast members arrive to put Pippin to the test. Charlemagne (Chad Lemerande), a force of will and power. Fastrada (Natalie Rein), Pippin’s calculating and sensual stepmother. Lewis (Will Knappen), Pippin’s muscular and bloodthirsty stepbrother. Catherine (Ana Lissa Bakken), a widow who offers the high-minded Pippin an ordinary life.

And then there is Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother, who encourages Pippin – and the audience – to embrace life: “Time to take a little time from this world we’re given.” Indeed, yes indeed, there is Berthe in the radiant performance personality of Ann Preiss Gray. The song “No Time at All” stops the show in the first act. Berthe/Preiss Gray winds up doing gymnastic-type moves on a suspended metal loop and with two male gymnast-dancer-lifters. It’s the doggonedest scene – full of zest and derring do – and she’s singing all along.

Side note: The things that can be done these days with the wireless microphone systems are wonderful. Not only can Berthe/Preiss Gray move and be heard singing through maneuvers, the Leading Player/Metzler does much the same as he sings and dances and then winds himself around a fire pole/dance pole, clearly singing the whole time. And the company has a balanced sound as performers do all manner of action, such as:

Side note two: Many of the dancers are part gymnasts in the dynamic choreography of Anna Allen. Two performers are straight-on gymnasts as they slink around the dance pole as a duo or do separate routines on the pole and the loop. Time and again, dances evolve into muscular lifts. Cartwheels, splits and flips pop up here and there. One bit even includes a deliberate failure of a daring lift – which is later successfully done. Large exercise balls and hula hoops are incorporated in tricky movement in some sequences. With the audience RIGHT THERE, this stuff is impressive.

Live music spices the show.

The floor is custom made for this production. The covering is painted blue at the edges, with a circus ring-like look of a painted ring – a red-orange outer circle and white for the center circle.

The set is two levels, with circus-like designs on moveable boxes, stairs and banner-like drapings at the rear. The performance area is fully covered by a huge white curtain prior to the performance, as if the audience is facing the side of a circus tent.  

Even with budget constraints for some items, costuming often pops, from the knightly stuff of Lewis to a couple of pecking chickens. The Leading Player/Metzler’s outfit is an eyeful of black-and-sparkly razzmatazz.

Birder Players takes command of the difficult show. Maybe Pippin can’t quite put things together, but this company sure knows how to put jolts of high-power energy into his story.

Six more performances are ahead, with most coming after a break for Independence Day.

***

Creative: Music and lyrics – Stephen Schwartz; book – Roger O. Hirson; producer, director – Alicia Birder; music director – Chad Lemerande; choreographer – Anna Allen; stage manager – Frank Tower; lighting design – Andrew Schmitz; sound design – Chris Gabyrczak; aerial choreographer – Kim Flinchum; make-up, hair design – Lois Gegare; set design – Jeffery James Frelich, Jr.; wardrobe coordinator – Sandy Melroy; costume design – Janet Ajango, Jan Blickman, Cheri Frusher, Jolee Jackson, Judy Patefield, Deile Smith; assistant stage manager, prop crew – Jenna Peterson; scenic artist – Susan Elliott; magic consultant, magician – Mike Gegare  

Cast: Leading Player – Zeb Metzler; Pippin – Kyle James; Charlemagne – Chad Lemerande; Berthe/Ensemble Act 2 – Ann Preiss Gray; Fastrada – Natalie Rein; Lewis – Will Knappen; Catherine/Ensemble Act I – Ana Lissa Bakken; Theo – Lawson Liedtke, Isaac Helstad; Ensemble – Abby Meyer, Anna Allen, Aidan Averbeck, Ava Helstad, Becca Schaberg, Christopher Havlichek, Chris Zimmerman, JaymeAnn Olson, Michael Jacobs; Ensemble/Crew – Gabriella Rein, Jon Weiss; Aerialists – Kim Flinchum, Olivia Jacqueline; Juggler – Jake Egert; Dog – Lighting Rein

Orchestra: Keyboard – Mary Slavek; bass – Tony Pesavento; percussion – Todd Truesdale; violin, flute – Kristine Wegge

Running time: 2½ hours

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. June 30, July 11, 12, 13; 2 and 7:30 p.m. July 14

Info: birderstudio.org

***

Musical numbers

Act I

“Magic to Do” – Leading Player, Company

“Corner of the Sky” – Pippin

“War Is a Science” – Charlemagne, Pippin, Company

“Glory” – Leading Player, Company

“Simple Joys” – Leading Player, Company

“No Time at All” – Berthe, Pippin, Ensemble

“With You, Part 1” – Pippin, Ensemble

“With You, Part 2” – Pippin, Ensemble

“Spread a Little Sunshine” – Fastrada, Ensemble

“Morning Glow” – Pippin, Company

ACT II

Opening – Leading Player, Company

“Right Track” – Leading Player, Pippin

“There He Was” – Catherine

“Kind of Woman” – Catherine

“Extraordinary” – Pippin, Company

“Prayer for a Duck” – Pippin, Theo

“Love Song” – Catherine, Pippin

“Corner of the Sky” (Last Reprise) – Catherine, Pippin

“I Guess I’ll Miss the Man” – Catherine

“Finale” – Leading Player, Pippin, Company

Theo’s “Corner of the Sky” (Reprise) – Theo, Company

***

THE VENUE: Broadway Theatre is a 3,000-square-foot facility at 123 S. Broadway on the east side of the Fox River in De Pere. The building started life as the Majestic Theatre sometime around 1930. The space is essentially a “black box” performance space that is adjusted to the needs of a specific production. The rectangular space includes a high, arcing ceiling consisting primarily of its original patterned tin, painted white, and (when not covered as in “Pippin”) a laminate dark brown floor. The stage is set on a long leg of the space, with moveable seating for 140 on three sides. The stage has an angled front with three steps to the top surface. The stage is painted blue, with speckles. Performances can spill from the stage onto the main level of the seating area, so action often is up close and personal. The theater is the home for performances and rehearsals of the youth Birder Studio of Performing Arts and adult Birder Players, and it is another option for other endeavors of entertainment.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays.

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