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Sunday, August 20, 2017

A Polished 'Pippin' at Beth Tfiloh

The company of 'Pippin'  Photo: Evan Margolis
The Beth Tfiloh Community Theater (BTCT), in its 9th season, has shown a recent liking for musicals that have plays within the musical.  Last year’s lively production of “Man of La Mancha” contains that feature, and the 2017 installment, Pippin, is another. #hocoarts

This is the 5th consecutive year that I’ve reviewed BTCT productions, and I have enjoyed them all.  However, the production of Pippin is the most polished, best directed and most extravagant of them all.
The leading performers and ensemble are outstanding.  The members of the technical crew are on top of their game.  And Diane M. Smith, BTCT’s venerable and meticulous director, treated the material with a light touch with sufficient campiness to provide laughter throughout.

The enchanting musical captured four Tony Awards in 1973, and 40 years later the 2013 revival added four more including Best Revival of a Musical.

With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Roger O. Hirson, Pippin is a fanciful tale about a young man, Pippin (played exceptionally by Samuel Boelens), who is searching for the meaning of life and in the process is seeking fulfillment.

Pippin is unique in that it features a traveling theatre troupe of circus-style performers, known as the Players.  Among them are clowns, dancers and illusionists who perform some little trick moves, hand dancing routines and pole descending.

As the son of Charlemagne (King Charles, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire), one would think that Pippin would have all that he needs.  In his mind he doesn’t, and his journey to be “extraordinary” is the central plotline.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s a play within the musical whereby the troupe’s leader named appropriately Leading Player is performed energetically by Nicole Smith.   She directs and produces the play as well as acts as a narrator for the audience, while maintaining an interest in Pippin.  In the original production of Pippin, that role was played by Ben Vereen, who came away with a Tony Award.

Noah Broth, Samuel Boelens * Brian Singer Photo: Evan Margolis
Ms. Smith’s high-octane energy comes across through her dancing and movements on the stage and also contributes with her vocal skills, comedic timing and commanding presence.  Her performance in the production number “Glory” and her duet with Mr. Boelens in “Right Track” showcases the talents of both.

If that isn’t enough, Ms. Smith designed the exceptional, color-laden, period costumes adding even more quality to the production.  The Players, in particular, are attired in dazzling eclectic garb.

Samuel Boelens showcases multiple talents in the title role.  On stage for most of the scenes, Mr. Boelens is poised throughout. His acting is proficient, but it’s his strong tenor voice with a wide range to include an ability to smoothly transition into falsetto that leads me to believe he has an excellent future in musical theatre should he choose that path.

Such vocal prowess is evident in the moving “Corner of the Sky” as well as “Morning Glow,” and “Extraordinary.”

Brian Singer plays the role of Pippin’s father, Charles, in a somewhat subdued manner.  Charles is the King who believes war is essential to holding the throne.  After he is killed by Pippin in an effort to seize the throne, the Leading Player resurrects him, which offers more evidence to the plot’s zaniness. 

One of the scene stealers in the show is veteran stage performer (over 100 shows!) Nancy Tarr Hart as Pippin’s hilarious free-spirited, fun-loving, dirty-minded, exiled grandmother Berthe.  Feisty and campy, Ms. Hart delivers a mighty theatrical punch in her one scene and scores with her number “No Time at All” in which she advises Pippin to stop worrying so much and live life. In that song, she orders the audience to participate with a large piece of sheet music with handwritten lyrics on a, well, sheet hanging from above the stage.

Noah Broth, already in his 5th consecutive season at BTCT, plays the role of Lewis, Pippin’ half-brother.  Charles describes his step-son Lewis as a good soldier because “he’s strong and stupid.”

Nancy Tarr Hart singing "No Time at All"  Photo: Evan Margoilis
Mr. Broth puts on a veritable abs show in his vest rendering this reviewer jealous.  Proving I’m not really resentful, Mr. Broth does a fine job in his role especially in the vain character of Lewis.  

It’s a good carryover role for him as he had played self-centered Gaston in BTCT’s production of “Beauty and the Beast.” He also performs well as one of the Players in their many numbers.

Another cast member who turns in a solid performance is Kerry Jungwirth as Catherine, a widow who brings Pippin into her home.   Her excellent vocals soar in “Kind of Woman” and “”I Guess I’ll Miss The Man.”  This is no surprise as I recall her outstanding performance in last year’s BTCT’s production of “Man of La Mancha.”  

Another notable performances are turned in by Hannah Elliott as Fastrada, Pippin’s conniving stepmother; Sammy Jungwirth as Catherine’s sassy son Theo; and, of course, the skilled Players. 

The functional, colorful and eye-pleasing set designed is by BTCT’s artistic director Evan Margolis.  It consists of a whimsical circus tent with five multi-level curtained entrances from which the actors come and go.

Chris Rose and his orchestra ably support the excellent vocals.  James Hunnicutt’s Bob Fosse-style choreography is superb given the large company and the tightness of the stage.  

Laura Poehlman-Lavon’s vivid lighting to include abstract projections on the auditorium’s walls and Everett Simkins’ crystal clear sound design contributed to the joyful experience.

This production of “Pippin excels in every area and represents community theatre at its finest.   

Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes with an intermission.

“Pippin” plays August 22 and 23 at the Mintzes Theatre/Rosen Arts Center located at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, 3300 Old Court Rd., Pikesville, MD 21208. Tickets can be purchased at the door or visit here

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