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.

‘Skeleton Crew’ Deeply Human Drama

Review of Skeleton Crew
By Dominique Morisseau
Directed by Jade King Carroll

For tickets & schedule:
Marin Theatre Company & Theatreworks Silicon Valley
Mill Valley, CA

January 25 – February 18, 2018 (Marin Theatre Company)
March 7 – April 1, 2018 (Theatreworks Silicon Valley)

RATING: 4 of 5 stars

(Preview Performance, January 26, 2018)

Marin Theatre Company Skeleton Crew

Tensions run high during a mandatory stop and search. Faye (Margo Hall), Reggie (Lance Gardner) and Dez (Christian Thompson). Photo by Kevin Berne.

In a struggling economy, set during the 2008 Great Recession, Detroit’s infrastructure is crumbling. Factories are shutting down, leaving the former workers stranded in neighborhoods without proper police or fire departments; crime is spiking and hope failing as families lose everything.

That dark cloud permeates a small factory that has remained operational, setting nerves on edge, pushing the boundaries as to what is acceptable behavior to survive short-term, and what will ultimately become self-destructive. After being stripped of home, income, and loved ones, what is left? Is it worth crossing the line to escape?

Ed Haynes’ set design of grungy lockers, worn break room furnishings covered in duct tape patches, and dirty windows instantly evokes the feeling of a factory long past its prime, with trash shoved under scratched tables and clothes strewn about. Sound designer Karin Graybash maintains a background of distant machinery, buzzing shift notices, and everyday life, such as the percolating coffeemaker.

Skeleton Crew - Marin Theatre Company

Shanita (Tristan Cunningham) hears of the factory shutdown. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Warning signs from the supervisor plaster the walls with no smoking notices, a scrawled “Faye” underneath, introducing us to the grizzled factory worker who snorts at her name and promptly lights one up. Margo Hall’s performance amuses at first, gently revealing layers of carefully hidden pain. Her endearing stubborn exterior is packed with quirky behavior under the direction of Jade King Carroll.

Reggie (Lance Gardner), her protégé, has risen to management, placing him in the precarious situation of pleasing his supervisors in order to protect his family or giving that up to help the union members and almost mother-figure of Faye. Gardner comes across as stiff, which seems awkward until it is explained during the second act, when he is able to relax and come into his own as Reggie, with the audience cheering him on.

Skeleton Crew - Marin Theatre Company

Reggie (Lance Gardner) realizes the consequences of his outburst. Photo by Kevin Berne.

The playfully flirtatious relationship of Shanita (Tristan Cunningham) and Dez (Christian Thompson) buoys up otherwise distressing content and they represent a wide spectrum of optimism for the future. Shanita is considering her unborn child, determined to persevere, and becomes dangerously sanguine about her prospects, considering the economic reality. Dez has a pragmatic view, driven to acquire whatever he can before the world falls apart, while clinging to what is left of his pride and moral compass in the process. As the playwright points out, some personalities are drawn to be part of the destruction, others to implement restoration.

The Bay Area premiere of Skeleton Crew is a dynamic, multi-faceted exploration of humanity under pressure. Without clear-cut right and wrong, it is easy to forget how easily we could find ourselves on the other side of the table—the moment that happens, compassion is lost, and people become numbers and statistics on a ledger. Dominique Morisseau has crafted relatable, complex characters and snappy repartee for a tightly written production.

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