Telluride Theatre: Pip, Pip Hooray For “Pippin”

Telluride Theatre presents its fresh spin on the classic Broadway, award-winning musical “Pippin.” The show is up over two long weekends starting Thursday, March 9 – Sunday, March 12, then, Thursday, March 16 – Sunday, March 19., 7 p.m. nightly, in the Black Box Theatre at The Palm.“Pippin” is for ages 21+ only. To purchase tickets, $15 (18 and under)/$25, call 970- 708-3934 or visit telluridetheatre.org/tickets.

One scene featured some of the best simulated stage sex ever: When the play’s protagonist sows his wild oats with his future mate, the tip of the hat to Bob Fosse’s Air-otica Ballet titillates and amuses with sinuous movement, implied malevolence, and biting wit.

Have I got your attention?

Good, now I will, ahem, flesh out the rest of the story of “Pippin,” a folksy fantasy and Telluride Theatre’s latest, greatest production, directed by the company’s artistic director, Sasha Sullivan.

While remaining true to Diane Paulus’ adaptation of the 1972 original, Sasha’s show is a wild and crazy mash-up of Siddharta/Candide, and Faust. It bursts with sensuality, magic tricks, tuneful Seventies pop-rock, existentialism 101, and comedy that runs the gamut from goofy to grotesque and flat-out bawdy.

There are also not just a few sideways glances at politics and policy then and now. Take the “war scene,” where we see the then most powerful man in the world, the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemage or Charles, a self-absorbed, vain, despotic, though somehow goofy Sasha, strategizing the afternoon away. But please remember when the original show came out, Charles’ character was a nod to our paranoid prez Richard Nixon; now Trump is in office.

 

Pippin (Anna Robinson) & Charles (Sasha Sullivan)

Pippin (Anna Robinson) & Charles (Sasha Sullivan)

 

In King Charles’ black-and-white universe, war trumps diplomacy; guts, gore, and glory are rewarded with eat, drink, and rape.

As a foreign policy, does that sound at all familiar?

I’m jess sayin…

Staged in the intimacy of The Palm’s new Black Box Theatre, Telluride Theatre’s “Pippin” is audaciously entertaining, at times, in-your-face, almost overwhelmingly so. On opening night, however, the audience seemed to embrace the regular assaults on the fourth wall and all the delicious fun throughout the warm, giddy evening.

And why not?

We know by now that Sasha is a visionary director with a gift for taking what could be dated material and getting it to connect with a contemporary audience – all the while staying true to the prototype.

In this production, Sasha’s unerring vision is matched by an equally talented support staff, including Cat Lee Covert, who does double duty as choreographer and Leading Player (or Mephisto).

 Leading Payer (Cat Lee Covert)

Leading Payer (Cat Lee Covert)

As choreographer, the lissome Cat tributes the legendary director-choreographer Bob Fosse, who helmed the original “Pippin.”

Fosse is well known for favoring angles over long, clean lines: a turned-in knee, a jutting hip, and isolated movements – just a finger or a hand lifts and opens –  are hallmarks of the style, which also features rolling hips and shoulders, strutting, and finger-snapping.

Watching Cat and her diabolical minions do Fosse in his tight signature mode, moving on and around the stage, is high-calorie eye candy.

As Leading Player, Cat is both intoxicating and scary, all hard-edges and insinuating smiles, showing her nasty side whenever the show is not going exactly according to her own strict script.

Besides being an Energizer Bunny of a dancer, Cat also displays her formidable vocal chops, while channeling Ben Vereen, who created the original role of Leading Player, both commentator and conjurer.

Unlike the crude devil of medieval legend, Leading Player/Mephisto is known to be cultivated, witty, cynical, and skeptical in his inability to believe in anything. As in Faust, through his unrelenting efforts to corrupt and destroy the protagonist, Cat’s Leading Player/Mephisto forces Pippin to react positively, thus ironically becoming the agent of his ultimate salvation.

 

Pippin (Anna Robinson) & Leading Player

Pippin & Leading Player

 

Yes Cat is the cat in the cat-and-mouse game which, in part, defines “Pippin,” moving the action forward by continually luring the callow boy into a trap.

Often succeeding.

Thankfully – spoiler alert! – not always.

At least not to a Fellini-esque finale.

And while we are on the subject, Pippin is Anna Robinson. Although she is a she and therefore no swooning dreamboat in chainmail and tights, a standard-issue object of desire, Anna manages to fit the role of an intelligent, but disillusioned naif with fuzzy, but persistent ambitions, like a favorite old slipper. The world weighs heavy on his/her earnest shoulders –  which Anna therefore carries in a permanent slump. But it is really when she unleashes that pure, sweet, voice of hers on Pippin’s signature songs, “Corner of the Sky” and Morning Glow,” that Anna fully wins over hearts and minds. In the end, her beguiling innocence and tireless physicality made us root for her Pippin’s victory over all the many assorted threats to his body and his dreams.

One of which is Fastrada.

Lewis (Shellanie Steger) & Fastrada (Pam Sante)

Lewis (Shellanie Steger) & Fastrada (Pam Sante)

Claws sharpened, vocally and comically, the sexy and commanding Pam Sante makes the most of the villainous, conniving, incestuous Fastrada, Charles’ trophy wife and Pippin’s stepmom, who wants her war-mongering, nitwit son, Lewis (the widely expressive, fearless actor Shellanie Steger, who preens and poses perfectly) to be next in line for the throne. One especially witty, brief moment, Pam manages to throw in a wink to Sharon Stone. (Trust me, you won’t miss it.)

In sharp contrast to Fastrada is Berthe, the charming and funny Amy Van Der Bosch in the role of Pippin’s exiled grandmother. Amy’s cameo as a diehard vaudevillian is a showstopper. Her “No Time At All” marks one of the most exhilarating moments in a show filled with uplifting numbers.

Berthe (Amy Van der Bosch) & Pippin

Berthe (Amy Van der Bosch) & Pippin

Another staffer, who does at least double duty like Cat, is Erika Bush.

Erika designed the minimalist, pitch-perfect sets in keeping with Sasha’s vision of a a world written in black and white – you know, like a cartoon. (All too much like today.) She also plays Katherine, the lovably, loose, very attractive widow, who coaxes Pippin into settling down on her estate with her and her son Theo (Lexie Torelli, who channels Dennis the Menace). It is through Katherine’s romantic wiles that Pippin comes to realize that what will fill the persistent hole in his heart is not anything outside, not anything far away in some distant land. What will fill him is right under his nose: a cozy family, three squares, and a warm bed.

Catherine (Erika Bush) & Pippin

Catherine (Erika Bush) & Pippin

Yes, duh, but nonetheless, worth underlining.

The tight-knit cast is rounded out by other abundantly talented players: Janis Prettigore, Jerrica Steger, Suella Steger, Jessica Harfich, Lexie Torelli, and Poly.

Cat’s super sensuous dancers, who positively swing with life, include Erika Curry-Elrod, Kelsey Trottier, Koko Walker, and, Erika Bush (yes, the same; yes, her again).

Cast

 

The hard-working band is Mark Goldfogel on percussion; Kenny Holdman on piano; Jeffrey Miller on violin; and Caroline Grace Moore, tambourine and musical direction.

Band

Rounding out the production team, veteran designer Melissa Harris’s costumes are imaginative variations on the black-and-white world Sasha and Erika created, playfully mixing medieval and modern, with a touch of Goth and punk.

Tree Priest’s and Tommy Wince’s lighting provides color washes that add dramatic frosting to this spicy cake of a musical.

Telluride Theatre’s “Pippin” is special in many ways (noted above), but certainly, in part, because director Sasha Sullivan put up the normally hetero show with a cast of 15 women.

In closing we feel it is important to state there is no emerging trend here: Telluride Theatre is not making a socio-cultural statement in “Pippin” as it did in “Romeo and Juliet” about gender fluidity.

For his adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet” last summer, Telluride Theatre’s executive director Colin Sullivan looked hard at Shakespeare words to see into the heart of his characters, especially Romeo, and decided the character embodies both the masculine and the feminine.

“Juliet had to be played by a woman. She is all girl,” explained Colin. “Romeo, however, could go either way: he is a lover and a killer; yin and yang. He as she represents the universal and fluid nature of love.”

The 15 women who star in Sasha’s show, however, were cast because, according to Sasha in her director’s statement, they were who showed up at auditions.

And they were up to the challenge.

You fight with the army you’ve got, right?

And what a fight.

What a show.

Pippin seduces with sexy charm and shiny, funny, diabolical magic and moves.

But then it stealthily holds a shiny mirror up to our true nature.

Quite a trick, no?

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Susan Viebrock

Susan Viebrock

Susan is Telluride Inside… and Out’s founder and editor-in-chief, the visionary on the team, in charge of content, concept and development. For 19+ years, Susan has covered Telluride’s cultural economy, which includes non-profits and special events. Much of her writing features high-profile individuals in the arts, entertainment, business, and politics. She is a former Citibank executive specializing in strategic planning and new business development, and a certified Viniyoga instructor.
Susan Viebrock

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