Pippin Revealed

Review of PIPPIN
by Gary Gonser, SFBATCC

Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by Roger O. Hirson
Directed by Kim Bromley & Jenny Boynton
Music directed by Judy Wiesen
Choreography by Katie Wickes

For tickets / schedule :
The Belrose Theatre
San Rafael, CA
1415 5th Avenue, San Rafael
Marin Musical Theatre Company
Tickets: $30-$50

RUN: January 26 – February 10, 2018
RATING: 3.5 of 5 stars

(February 9, 2018)

Pippin - Marin Musical Theatre Company

Photo by Marin Musical Theatre Company.

This production of PIPPIN is fun and high energy, a surprisingly good match to the little Belrose Theatre in San Rafael.

With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Roger O. Hirson, this show won 5 Tonys for its debut on Broadway in 1973 and 4 for its revival in 2013.  Not bad for a play that started out its life as a student musical at Carnegie Mellon.

This play within a play is presented by a traveling troupe of actors.  It’s set in 780 AD, somewhere in the old Holy Roman Empire.  At curtain, the MC or “Leading Player” (played by Earl Alfred Paus) magically transforms a simple stage into a sensual blank canvas, ready to be painted.  The group has cast Pippin (played by Zachary Isen) as a newer actor who is searching for the true meaning of his life. Not satisfied with just being the eldest son of “Charles” (king Charlemagne, played by Jere Torkelsen) in the Middle Ages, Pippin wants more. As a prince, Pippin has all the choices of the age available to him – war, academia, religion, politics, hedonism and more.  What road does he take?  Why not all (spoken like a true humanities student)?

And so it goes. The troupe takes the blank stage and creates scenes with all the choreography and costumes and makeup so outstanding in the original production on Broadway. Did I say the original Director & Choreographer was Bob Fosse? This production goes all out to bring out the best of dance and choreography so inherent in its sensual beginnings.

Pippin’s first choice of life path is academia, but this grows old fast within the court of Charlemagne. The path of war leads to battle with the Visigoths, but Pippin is appalled by the violence (surprise?). Escaping to the countryside, Pippin visits his exiled grandmother Bertha (played by Kim Bromley), who clears the air a bit by telling him that he needs to experience life, because youth is gone “in no time at all.” Life revels in romantic antics on stage, accentuated by the delightful ensemble. Pippin tires of that as well and follows the Leading Player’s advice to try politics.

Charles’ second wife Fastrada (played by Marla Cox) does a good job of cajoling Pippin into murdering her husband, the good Charles. She hopes her son Lewis (played by Nelson Brown) will survive the plot to become king. “Down with tyrants” becomes the mantra of the minute, and Pippin kills his father for his heartless ways as king. Intermission follows after a promise of the “best finale ever” after the break.

Pippin - Marin Musical Theatre Company

Photo by Marin Musical Theatre Company.

Pippin takes over the crown, but is not able to resolve the issues of the kingdom and begs the Leading Player to bring king Charles back to life so he can settle the kingdom down again. DONE!  Pippin then tries art and finally religion. Nothing works. He despairs. Along comes the widow Catherine (played by Jenny Boynton) who takes Pippin in to help her on the farm with her son Theo (played by Carl Robinett). Eventually, we get to love as the answer to Pippin’s developmental crises. Simple, but it takes a life to appreciate love.

The troupe ensemble ebbs and flows around the characters to add interest to this rather linear story. It works. There is never a dull moment with song and dance defining the emotions along the way. Comedy is the rule here, and when Bromley sings her “No Time at All,” she invites the audience to join her chorus to wish Pippin a full love life around the neighborhood.

The ensemble dancers are fantastic. Nine “players” fill all the dancing and support roles perfectly with face makeup and costumes having a mix of styles and colors reminiscent of “King Arthur” and “Hair.”  In the small space that is the Belrose, the audience shares the intimacy of the work onstage. Having made quick work of the art of war, the players move smoothly into the exotic, erotic and passionate areas around Pippin’s future development.

The lighting works well to define the action and sensuality surrounding Pippin’s travels.  It is obvious that lighting designer Marilyn Izdebski knows her lights and technique. Choreographer Katie Wickes and costumer Amaris Blagborne do wonders with this play to make it shine. The ensemble in these capable hands looks stunning. The 5-piece band was perfect for the voices working Judy Wiesen’s music magic.

Overall, PIPPIN at the Belrose Theatre is fun and energetic, with a good cast that is able to carry the storyline with an attitude that does not let the play drag. Yes, there is a dramatic ending but I can’t reveal it. The ending hints at the beginning of another life on this stage. I believe the Lead Player will take it from here.

‘You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown’ at Sonoma State University

Review of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown
Book, Music and Lyrics by Clark Gesner
Music Direction by Lynne Morrow
Stage Direction by Doyle Ott
Choreography by Anna Leach, Emily Rice with Dylan Smith
Sonoma State University Department of Music and Theatre Arts & Dance
Sonoma State University, Evert B. Person Theatre
Rohnert Park, CA

RUN: January 31 – February 11, 2018
RATING: 3.5 of 5 stars

February 2, 2018

Sonoma State University You're A Good Man Charlie Brown

Snoopy (Emily Rice) sings to Woodstock. Photo by James Wirth.

Heartwarming vignettes mingle seamlessly in a steady stream of insights and amusing antics from the beloved comic strip Peanuts in this tranquil musical. Sally rants against an unfairly graded art project of bent coat hangers, Lucy rules the playground, Linus waxes poetical while clutching his blanket, and Snoopy daydreams as a World War I flying ace in pursuit of the infamous Red Baron.

Michael Smith’s simplistic set design recreates the casual line drawings of Charles M. Schulz, filled with primal colors; the “kite eating tree” is particularly effective and integrates with the bold palette of Roxie Johnson’s costumes. Robin DeLuca’s lighting design takes center stage, shifting in vivid hues across an otherwise unencumbered backdrop. The puppet element of a fuzzy Woodstock entrances children in the audience, giving Snoopy a friend to interact with during songs.

Stage direction by Doyle Ott takes advantage of the shifting set elements, keeping visuals fresh between scenes, although the brick wall’s constant rotation becomes distracting during the Peter Rabbit book report. A clever reference to Les Miserables revitalizes it, with Charlie Brown enthusiastically waving a carrot flag while perched heroically atop the wall.

Noah Evans exaggerates the trials of Charlie Brown for comedic effect, trailing his baseball bat dejectedly after a disastrous game, and wringing his hands at the mailbox while waiting for a Valentine. Emily Rice lopes with boundless enthusiasm as Snoopy, exploding into a tap routine, while crooning “Suppertime”.

Sonoma State University Your'e A Good Man Charlie Brown

The ensemble gathers for the title song. Photo by James Wirth.

Anna Leach is an effective Lucy Van Pelt, curling her fist when life does not go her way, with an operatic clarity to her songs. Brandon Matel’s Schroeder blings up for “Beethoven Day” and manages to ignore Lucy’s constant pestering. Sally Brown’s (Hailey Patrick) innocent, cheeky comebacks add zest to the musical, although her rabbit hunting expedition became rather rambunctious with audience interactions. Mathew Adiao as Linus Van Pelt needs more rehearsal of the blanket dance, which is easily overlooked due to his natural chemistry with Leach. They are believable siblings, quarreling over a missing pencil only to come together with mutual understanding and support when the need arises.

Incorporating tumbling and dance infuses energy into this production. The action is infectious, with characters playing catch during the baseball game, running through the audience with nets, and leaping into forward rolls across the stage. Sonoma State University’s lively You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown is a fun-filled performance for children and the young at heart.

Highlights of North Bay Theater in 2017

Looking back on this tempestuous year both politically and due to the devastating forest fires, local theaters have stepped up with thought provoking drama and welcome comedic relief. With such a vibrant performing arts community in the North Bay, these are merely a selection of productions that stood out for me in 2017.

The Elephant Man
Curtain Call Theatre in Monte Rio

The Elephant Man

Dr. Frederick Treves (Lew Brown) explains the meaning of “home” to John Merrick (James Rowan)

Based on the experiences of Joseph (John) Carey Merrick, who struggled with deformities in the late 19th century, the story follows an intelligent man who is ridiculed by society for his outward appearance until being discovered by a doctor, who provides him a safe haven.

This clever play by Bernard Pomerance shows that “the other” is not to be feared, first impressions should be questioned, and compassion can change lives. Rather than using heavy makeup, John Merrick is recreated through physicality and a powerful portrayal by James Rowan. When I look back on this year, The Elephant Man stands out as a moving piece of theater.

Visiting Mr. Green
6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa

Visiting Mr. Green

Mr. Green (Al Kaplan) cannot understand why Ross Gardiner (Kevin Kieta) is not interested in marriage and a family. Photo © Eric Chazankin.

An accidental friendship is formed when Ross is court appointed to check in on elderly Mr. Green, who is living alone and not eating properly. Through their confrontations and slowly built relationship, Ross admits to being rejected by his family for being gay, and although Mr. Green has difficulty with the news, he ultimately becomes the loving father that Ross needs.

Al Kaplan’s Mr. Green and Kevin Kieta as Ross Gardiner give mature, vulnerable performances. For anyone who has been isolated by family for being LGBTQA, the fiery arguments and loneliness are all too real. Watching Mr. Green work through his initial shock to discover that love of family and friends is more important than prejudice is beautiful.

Daddy Long Legs
Main Stage West in Sebastopol

Daddy Long Legs

Jerusha (Madison Genovese) muses on her letter to Daddy Long Legs (Tyler Costin). Photo by Eric Chazankin.

Unlike traditional musicals, Daddy Long Legs has a perpetually lilting melody, rather than separate songs. It weaves a delightful romance between Jerusha Abbott, an orphan, and her mysterious benefactor who finds himself falling in love with her letters.

Lively curiosity, new beginnings, and a hopeful outlook create a relaxing atmosphere that leaves a lingering smile in the audience. The two-hander musical with Madison Genovese and Tyler Costin was a quietly absorbing experience, demonstrating that musicals do not need to be flashy and filled with chorus lines to be effective.

The 39 Steps
Ross Valley Players in Ross

The 39 Steps

Photo by Gregg Le Blanc.

This chaotic comedy is loosely based on Hitchcock’s 1935 spy film, packed with chase scenes, romance and nefarious foreign agents. Hannay finds himself on the run to protect the 39 Steps from falling into the wrong hands. Three talented actors take on every other character in the play, from a mysterious professor to raging Scottish householder.

Using the stage to full effect, actors clamber through windows, use the ceiling to shimmy along a moving train, and wander among the darkened aisles, tripping over pig styes. In an exhilarating performance, this was a fantastic comedy from Ross Valley Players.

Guards at the Taj
Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley

Guards at the Taj

Babur (Rushi Kota) muses on beauty to his friend Humayun (Jason Kapoor). Photo by Kevin Berne.

Controversially gruesome, this play delves into the psychology of atrocities through a legend that builders of the Taj Mahal had their hands cut off by a capriciously cruel leader. Rather than examining it through court politics, the story narrows its focus to ordinary guards who find themselves forced to slice off the artists’ hands or face death themselves.

Childhood friends Humayun (Jason Kapoor) and Babur (Rushi Kota) joke around until discovering they have been chosen for the deed. In a dramatically blood drenched set, they deal with the aftermath of trauma in humanizing interactions, leading to a terrible decision that threatens their friendship. I was on the edge of my seat the entire play, it will stay with me for years to come. It also turned a full house into a handful of audience members who stayed to final curtain—many walked out, unable to take the violence and raw energy of the play, or disagreeing with how it was being portrayed. That being said, playwright Rajiv Joseph should be proud of this work and I stand by my belief that this is an outstanding production.

Left Edge Theatre in Santa Rosa


Jack (Chris Ginesi) sips pinot noir with the tasting manager (Mark Bradbury) while Miles (Ron Severdia) describes the bouquet. Photo by Argo Thompson.

The North Bay is in the heart of wine country, and what better way to celebrate that than with Rex Pickett’s Sideways. Although set in the Santa Ynez Valley, its inside jokes are entirely appropriate for tasting rooms in this area. I have seen the overly snobbish connoisseur swirling away next to the couple who is just there to get drunk for the afternoon.

In a wild bachelor binge before the wedding, Miles (Ron Severdia) takes Jack (Chris Ginesi) through a series of wineries. Along the way, they re-examine their life goals and whether romance is worth having.

The Diary of Anne Frank
Raven Players in Healdsburg

Diary of Anne Frank

Photo by Ray Mabry Photography.

Combining a compelling set design by Michael Mingoia with a strong ensemble, The Diary of Anne Frank is a timely reminder of what can happen when ethnic groups are targeted by society. Offered for free by Raven Players to any teenager in attendance during its run, this story of wonder and exploration set in the backdrop of war remains a relevant warning.

I will never forget when I first saw this play as a child and understood the implications—I am grateful that this year the next generation had an opportunity to experience it with such a fine cast.

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