Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Regional Theater Spotlight: KC Rep Brings You Pippin

Sometimes you find yourself buying a plane ticket to Kansas City to see theater.  Your friends might smile and nod and wish you safe travels, but secretly they question your sanity.  Kansas City?  For theater?  Just for the weekend?

Sunset in Kansas City
The most wonderful reaction to this wacky theater adventure was a shopgirl in J. Crew in Country Club Plaza, Kansas City.  With complete incredulity, she targeted the exact reason for this trip--my friend and I came to Kansas City to get something we couldn't get in New York.  And it was true--we wanted to see Claybourne Elder (Bonnie & Clyde) star in Pippin.  Kansas City had the monopoly on that--lucky devils.


I was in Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival this year where I saw some strong English regional theater companies put on shows  (I Heart Peterborough from Eastern Angles, Oh the Humanity from Northern Stages).  I started to wonder why I had seen so much more theater from regional theaters in England than America.  So a theater weekend to the Midwest was born.

Our first stop was the Kansas City Rep which is in its 48th season and puts on a mix of new works and revivals.  Some productions showcase Kansas City artists (for instance Death of a Salesman playing this January) and others involve both local Kansas City artists and out of town performers.  KC Rep also commissions new works such as the upcoming "Waiting for You on the Corner of {13th and Walnut}."

Eric Rosen has been the Artistic Director of Kansas City Rep for the past 5 years.  Rosen launched a new work (his collaboration with Matt Sax) Venice at KC Rep where it was very well-received.  Venice has been called the rap-music Othello and I'm hoping it gets staged somewhere nearby soon because it sounds fascinating.  KC Rep was also where the Broadway bound A Christmas Story: The Musical! had its world premiere.

Rosen directed this "punk rock" production of Pippin.*  Transforming the 70's-sound of Pippin into anything but an easy listening hippie fest is a feat.  Rosen's punk rock vision managed to get Pippin to sound more like contemporary pop musical theater than a remnant from my childhood.  But it never quite got the edge that the "punk" or "rock" monikers suggest.  Even so, Rosen makes some breathtaking staging choices in this production.  There were a lot of creative concepts at play (punk styling, rock singing, instruments played by actors).  Even though these moments did not work at all times, when they heaved into focus and clicked it was magical. 

Using literal "frames" around the action, as well as large scale framed paintings to set a scene he kept reminding us of the storytelling trope of the work.  In particular the massive Guernica inspired painting established the battle scene and was used to great effect combined with bare bulb lamps that descend from the ceiling and then are taken up as props by the actors.  Although these may sound like disparate elements, in Rosen's hands they seamlessly created the feeling of overwhelming battle by sound, light, space and action.  The chaos of all those elements was well-choreographed.  Pippin leaves the scene shell-shocked and Rosen has created a beautiful format to express that.  In some ways for me the trip to Kansas City was worth it for that scene alone (and to be introduced to Rosen's work). 

There is thought and care in each choice even if they did not all work for me.  For instance, I understood the effort to integrate musical instruments and microphone stands into the scenes to further underline the punk rock theme, but I found them to be more of a distraction (though I felt the same way when John Doyle did this in Company).  There was one beautiful moment where Pippin, singing With You, ends up as part of a string trio with the women who are trying to seduce him.  It was, for me, the stand alone moment where the instruments married to the mood well--the strings resonated as sensual and seductive.  And who would not fall for a handsome guy playing you the violin.

Claybourne Elder was a fantastic, dreamy young Pippin (even if illness had its way with his voice that night).  He draws you into a character who is impetuous, adrift, and often foolish.  Even when Pippin is being his most petulant, Elder makes him lovable (you understand how Catherine could moon over the arch in his foot).  Elder finds the vulnerability and wide-eyed searching in Pippin and it bursts forth through every gesture and expression, and he does not waste a single moment.  Supporting him in this cast was Mary Testa as a sassy, over the top Berthe who got the audience to sing along to No Time At All, Wallace Smith as a strong rock star Leading Player, and John Hickok as the slick and powerful Charles. All brought powerful vocals and polished dramatic performances to their scenes.  The scenic design by Jack Magaw was well-executed (the stained-glass style drop for the court of the king stood out) and lighting design by Jason Lyons was first-rate. 

Pippin will probably never be one of my favorite musicals but this production found some interesting avenues into the work which made it well worth the journey. 

And Kansas City bonus, we got to see the shuttlecocks!
Claus Oldenburg at Nelson Atkins Museum of Art
*I received a complimentary ticket to this show.

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