Bob Fosse was the genius behind “Cabaret,” Chicago,” “Damn Yankees,” “All that Jazz” and “Sweet Charity” – all major achievements in the world history of American musical theater.
Mr. Fosse, who died in 1987, also wrote “Pippin,” which had a long Broadway run starting almost 50 years ago and won a black bowler hat full of awards.
Wherever Mr. Fosse is now he must be glowing with pride at many of the outstanding performances of his shows that are produced frequently today.
After seeing the season-opening production of “Pippin” that opened at Skylight Music Theatre, however, Mr. Fosse must be rolling over in his grave.
If ever there was a production that managed to take all the magic, mystery, vigor and exuberance out of it, this was the one.
With singing that was mixed and acting that was suspect, this production, directed by Ray Jivoff, music directed by David Bonofiglio and choreographed by Crystal Wagner, became a ponderous and plodding almost two and a half hours that seemed it might never come to a merciful end.
The story of the play is of a young prince, Pippin (Lucas Pastrana), the son of Charlemagne (Todd Denning) who searches for a meaningful life. Along the way he fights in a war, has lots of meaningless sex, kills his father, becomes the king, abandons his throne and finally happily ends up with a widow and her young son, to live happily ever after.
The entire thing was overseen by The Leading Player (Krystal Drake) a kind of mashup character between Judy Garland, Gwen Verdon and Ben Vereen (who created the role).
There are a number of aspects of this production that are captivating and stand worthy of the history of “Pippin.”
The music direction of Mr. Bonofiglio is loyal to the original and his six-man band is imaginative and solid. Costumes by Karen Simonson Kopischke are cast in various shades of black and gray were stark and striking.
The lighting by Jason Fassl, one of the most imaginative and skillful designers in theater was the most striking off all the designers. His creative use of rear production screens was a highlight and he proved once again, that when there is music, his lighting often becomes a song all by itself.
But then there is the rest of this mess.
Mr. Pastrana has a pleasant tenor with an impressive range. But his acting is wooden and his musical numbers were almost always sung to the rafters of the Cabot Theatre as if he were pleading to some wistful spirit. There was almost no connection with the full-house on opening night.
Ms. Drake had an excellent connection with the audience and a kind of sassy essence that did her character proud. She can sing and she can dance and both skills were on display. As they were with Mr. Denning who is one of the best and most experienced and accomplished actors in Wisconsin. He tried to milk every laugh out of his role, but good theatrical comedy needs more than just one person. Nobody was there for Mr. Denning.
While Mr. Denning showed the most accomplished chops, joined by Kathryn Hausman, it would have been nice if the rest of his cast had learned that sometimes less is really more. Overacting ran amok with mugging being the primary expression for many of the actors like Alex Campea, Elaine Parsons Herro and Becky Cofta.
But it was the dancing that truly set this show apart and helped to create an evening of such a single dimension that it was difficult to hang in there for the entire two and almost a half hours.
Mr. Fosse was, above all else, a dancer and choreographer. He populated his shows with dancers and singers who could really dance and sing.
Faced with the problem of not having many dancers who can really dance, Mr. Jivoff and Ms. Wagner, made the decision to create dances that went on and on and on. And ON.
The choreography was stock stuff and was performed with an ineptitude that boggled the mind. The smart thing would have been to cut the dances short and get on with whatever story they were trying to tell. But we couldn’t get so lucky.
A prime example was the performance by Ms. Parsons Herro, who had a nice scene with as the grandmother to Pippin, explaining to him that he needs to lighten up and live his life.
She was a cloistered and aged as she lectured her grandson about her life, and how well she has lived it. After singing verse after verse and getting the audience to sing along with the chorus, she shed her grandma gown and revealed herself in a spangled onesie with shorts to her mid thigh.
And she began to tap dance. She tapped and tapped and tapped. Nothing special or exciting, and I found myself wishing she would stop this nonsense.
It wasn’t her fault. It was the choreographer who obviously felt that dancing was oh so much damn fun for an audience, even if it was repetitive and unimaginative dancing.
Skylight is one of the six groups that receive the major portion of funds raised by the United Performing Arts Fund. It’s a signal that the company is a major player in the arts panorama in Milwaukee.
This production could well have been staged by college drama department. Skylight has a proud and long history of great entertainment and high level productions making it worthy of the big funding benefits.
At the beginning of the play, Ms. Drake promises to make “magic.” The only thing she didn’t say was that the tick was going to be on us.
I deeply hope that the next production, “Hairspray,” brings it back to the excellence we have all come to expect.
A NOTE: “Pippin” marks the last production in Milwaukee for Ms. Hausman, who is leaving Milwaukee for a year long residency with English Musicals Korea. In the last couple of years she has emerged as a smart and interesting actor, singer and dancer. Her turn in “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” at Skylight was memorable. I hope she has fun and then comes back to Milwaukee.