Sunday, February 22, 2015

"Pippin" is Full of Magic

The beloved musical gives audiences a taste of theater at both extremes

Photo Courtesy of Hennepin Theater Trust

I don't know about you, but when I see live theater (especially musical theater), I want to be blown away by magic.

There's something about watching Mary Poppins "fly" over an audience, or a Beast change into a Prince before your eyes, that brings a little more wonder into the world, and it's something we could all use more of.

Pippin delivers plenty of wonder, told through the story of a boy finding his way in the world. Pippin fights in the crusades, murders his father and wanders the earth, desperately searching for the key to happiness. What will bring Pippin satisfaction? It's not lust, war, or glory; instead, contentment is found in a life of working with one's hands, caring for others, and otherwise focusing on simple things. By making light of extraordinarily dark subject matter (crusades? patricide? elitism?), Pippin gently guides us an actual happy ending; it may not be what we expected, but it's better for that.

The number of spectacular effects to be found in Pippin is too large to list here; instead I can say that although this story sounds ordinary, the cast goes out of its way to bring (literal) magic to us all. Pippin is also remarkable for allowing audiences a glimpse behind the masque; the show ends with the illusion of theater being stripped away, and all we see is a theaterfull of possibility.

Photo Courtesy of Hennepin Theater Trust
There are some spectacular voices among the cast members, in particular Sasha Allen (a former competitor on The Voice). Allen could carry any show, but her lithely acrobatic singing really pushes Pippin forward; she is of a rare caliber and beyond worth going to see. Her work in "Glory" and "On the Right Track" is chilling in the best way.

Another standout is Minnesota native Kristine Reese (formerly seen here on stage in Wicked). Reese has a surprising voice, and lends charm to a role that otherwise could be relatively uninteresting.

Priscilla Lopez is an audience favorite as Pippin's grandmother Berthe. The sneakiest star, however, is John Rubinstein as King Charles; not only is he fabulous in the role of the powerful king, but he is also the original Pippin from the show's first run in 1972. He's wonderful and I only wish he were a more present part of the second act.

Costumes and sets strike a balance between a Holy Grail and burlesque circus show vibe. It shouldn't work, but it does; there is so much to look at, so much surprising detail that you can't help but get caught up in it all. I would recommend trying to get seats in the center of the theater if you can so you can see all of the action, but it's a spectacular show either way.

Photo Courtesy of Hennepin Theater Trust

A little Monty Python, a little Gilbert and Sullivan, a little Cirque du Soleil, and a whole lot of heart, Pippin is a spectacular revival and I highly recommend it. People of any age can enjoy it, but I think it's especially fit for those who have lost their wonder and need a little help with inspiration. Click here for more information about the show and buying tickets.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

An Outstanding "Oliver!"

The classic musical retains its magic and message in a new production through Hennepin Theater Trust's 'Broadway Re-Imagined' Series

Orphans in the Work House
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theater Trust

It is often said that the way to define a truly classic piece of art is to see how well it stands the test of time.

By that standard, most art is relatively temporal; movie stars fade and die, albums are forgotten, Pulitzer winners crumble to dust in long forgotten bookshelf corners.

It is lucky for us that the work of Charles Dickens was not destined to fail the time-test.

Over a hundred years after publication, Oliver Twist proves as relevant a tale as ever, and this is clearly evident in the excellent new production of the Broadway musical Oliver! at the Pantages Theater in downtown Minneapolis.

Oliver Twist is an orphan in 1860's London, caught in between the budding schemes of imperialism,
The Artful Dodger and Oliver Twist
Photo Courtesy of Hennepin Theater Trust
industrialism, child labor laws and the socialist revolution. He has a horrifically unfortunate life (involving, among other things, a child labor workhouse and funeral parlor) until he meets a friendly thief named Artful Dodger, who brings him to relative safety. The trouble is, Dodger works for another thief (Fagin), who is equal parts philanthropist (taking in the city's numerous orphans and feeding/sheltering/clothing them) and pimp (training the children as thieves and whores to earn their keep).

Oliver eventually makes his way to the home of a rich man, and the rest of the story entails the struggle between rich and poor, Fagin fighting to reclaim Oliver from his luxurious new home, Fagin's lackeys (including the beautifully sorrowful prostitute Nancy) caught in between, and the eventual triumph of good (and money) over evil.

Peter Rothstein went all out with this cast; orphans are played by the Minnesota boys choir, Nate Turcotte is a winsome Oliver, and Lauren Davis lends a new sheen to Nancy.

A few actors, however, made the show and are a great reminder that any 'old' material can be made fresh. Alec Fisher is slyly fabulous as the Artful Dodger, with more than enough spunk for the entire gang of thieves. James Ramlet unveils a spectacular bass voice as Mr. Bumble, and his appearances are a consistent delight. And Bradley Greenwald is a revelation as Fagin, lending his signature sarcastic charm and versatile voice to a part that deserves his swagger. Greenwald also performs several special 'magical' stage effects in his role; kids and grownups alike are sure to enjoy it.

Bradley Greenwald as Fagin
Photo Courtesy of Hennepin Theater Trust
Oliver!  is an enduring tale, especially in an age when class, race, and politics are so fraught with conflict. The value in Oliver! is its existence in the gray space between these tensions, showing what happens to those who are caught in the spoke of an onward moving society. It's a morality tale packaged in a sprightly musical, and it's a great show for people of any age. This production has the benefit of being locally grown and running for a while; click on this link to make sure to get your tickets now.