Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Pippin’ pays vivid visit to Green Bay

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For specialty casts, the revival version of the musical “Pippin” is right up there – circus derring-do, magic hocus-pocus, dance suave-ery, upside-down-on-a-trapeze singing grandma and all.

Yes, the grandmother of Pippin philosophizes that “it’s time to start living” – in an audience sing-along, yet – eventually taking to a trapeze in a routine with a muscular gymnast/strongman. Fun? You bet. Jaw-dropping, too.

That’s a glimpse from the whopping good touring production of the 2013 Tony Award-winning show that made a one-night stop Wednesday at the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts.

The show is a theatrical version of almost-history, done up in a circus-like way. Pippin is the eldest son of Charlemagne, who forged unity in Europe by hook or crook 12 centuries ago. Charlemagne lived and had wives and children – and that’s as close as this show gets to tearing facts from the pages of history.

“Pippin” is showbiz.

As heir to a powerful throne, Pippin could have the world at his feet. Instead, he goes through life searching for fulfillment through education, glory of war, exhaustive pursuit of sex and “ordinary life” and continually ends up finding something lacking. The reasoning given to Pippin is foggy and frustrating to try to understand. His grandmother (Emilia M. Brown) sums it up beautifully when she says, “You lost me there in the middle, Pippin.”

But the show has zip in such songs as “Magic to Do,” “Corner of the Sky” and “Extraordinary” by Stephen Schwartz. Schwartz also notably wrote the music and lyrics for the enduring hits “Godspell” and “Wicked.”

Cool things from the production:

+ Naysh Fox as Pippin as he is swept into the role that is part contemplative, part nicely vocal, part gymnastic, part dance-y, part romantic, part headstrong and all demanding.

+ The Bob Fosse-inspired dance sequences. The Leading Player (Housso Semon) has a synchronized trio bit (with Reggie Bromell and Mason Derreck Lewis) that’s all style and verve. Feet are placed in exactly the right place in step after step in smooth sequence as if peacocks are showing off their finest flair. Semon weaves through the show as a kind of singing ringmaster/narrator/emcee/controller – singing, dancing and the whole shebang.

+ Erica Lee Cianciulli as Pippin’s stepmother, Fastrada, who calls herself “just an ordinary housewife and mother” but is really one hot mama with designs for her son, Lewis (Courtney Dease), to take the throne. Irony leaps from “Spread a Little Sunshine,” with Cianciulli showcased in sassy action and going through costume changes in blinks of eye so fast that Wednesday it took the audience a moment to realize what happened.

+ Brendon Schaefer as the energized Charlemagne, full of rubbery shifts of expression and commanding, charismatic presence that’s usually darkly comical.

+ All the gymnastics stuff that’s part of the “magic to do” theme. The ensemble is made up of singing-acting-gymnast-circus-magician-dance types. The coordination of the show is tight and has to be because of demanding routines. Just one: A guy lifts a woman over his head, holding her extended body at a 90-degree angle to his axis; he lets go, and she drops while grabbing her knees and catches on his body near his waist – like a human ring-toss. Duh-aaa – amazing. The show is like a circus with a musical’s story woven in.

+ Magic stuff. Some is toss-off quick, like Charlemagne toying with a cloth that – presto – becomes a rigid cane. Some is more elaborate, including a covered body levitating and then disappearing.

Overall, this revival edition of “Pippin” took a convoluted story with some catchy songs and jacked them up with visual and physical splashes. The camaraderie of the cast is necessary and invigorating to watch – all the commitment. Very nice.

***

Creative: Music and lyrics – Stephen Schwartz; Roger O. Hirson, Bob Fosse; original direction – Diane Paulus; tour direction – Mia Walker; choreography – Chet Walker in the style of Bob Fosse; circus creation – Gypsy Snider; scenic coordination – Evan Adamson; original costume design – Dominque Lemieux; costume coordination – John P. White; lighting design – Russell A. Thompson; sound design – Dave Temby; illusions – Paul Kieve

Cast: Pippin – Naysh Fox; Leading Player – Housso Semon; Fastrada – Erica Lee Cianciulli; Catherine – Savannah Sprinkle; Charles – Brendon Schaefer; Berthe – Emilia M. Brown; Lewis – Courtney Dease; Theo – Harrison Leahy/Max Albert Vivino (Wednesday); The Players – Reggie Bromell, Alysia Marie Colon, Eliana Dunlap, Rachael Britton Hart, Joel Herzfeld, Tyler Jacobson, Svetlana Khoruzhina, Mason Derreck Lewis, Camden A. Loeser, Mara Lucas, Jerod Beane McCurry, Mariona Mendoza, Cam Zweir

Orchestra: Conductor/music director/keyboard 1 – William Shuler; assistant music director/keyboard 2 – Alexander T. Greenberg; guitar – Frank Vasile; reed – Michael Witsberger; trumpet – Chuck Curry; percussion – Matthew Roth

***

Musical numbers

Act I

Scene 1: The Opening

“Magic to Do” – The Players

“Corner of the Sky” – Pippin

Scene 2: Home – Leading Player, Charles, Pippin, Lewis, Fastrada

Scene 3: Glory

“War Is a Science” – Charles and the Players

“Glory” – Leading Player and the Players

Scene 4: The Flesh

“Simple Joys” – Leading Player and the Players

“No Time at All” – Berthe and the Players

“With You” – Pippin and the Players

Scene 5: Revolution

“Spread a Little Sunshine” – Fastrada

“Morning Glow” – Pippin and the Players

ACT II

Entr’acte

Scene 1: Politics

Scene 2: Encouragement

“On the Right Track” – Leading Player and Pippin

Scene 3: Ordinary Life

“Kind of Woman” – Catherine

“Extraordinary” – Pippin and the Players

“Love Song” – Pippin and Catherine

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

Scene 4: The Finale

“Finale/Magic Shows and Miracles” – Leading Player, Fastrada, Pippin and the Players

“Corner of the Sky” (Reprise) – Theo and the Players

***

THE VENUE: Cofrin Family Hall is one of three performance spaces within the Edward W. Weidner Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. At its maximum capacity setup, the hall seats 2,021 over its three levels of maple-and-burgundy seats. Opened Jan. 15, 1993, the hall was built to adapt to the needs of orchestra concerts, operas, musicals, plays and organ, band and choral concerts. For acoustical properties, wood is emphasized on the seats, mezzanine and balcony surfaces and walls near the stage. Many surfaces are curved to help shape the sound. Wood is featured for an aesthetic reason, too – a “from here” aura of woodsy Northeastern Wisconsin.

THE PEOPLE: The name Cofrin relates in great degree to A.E. Cofrin, founder of Fort Howard Paper Co., and his son, Dr. David A. Cofrin, who was instrumental in building the Weidner Center through multi-million-dollar donations. A friendship developed between David A. Cofrin (1921-2009) and Edward W. Weidner (1921-2007), the beloved founding chancellor of UWGB. Weidner spoke slowly and carried a big idea. Weidner arrived when there were no buildings on the present-day campus on rolling hills near the shore of Green Bay. His interests ranged from academia to birding to sports. He loved building projects. It was in his blood. He guided the building of the Weidner Center, so named from early on in construction. Weidner admitted his eyes welled once when driving to a performance and seeing a green sign along the highway: WEIDNER CENTER.

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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