Theater review: Boiler Room Theatre’s ‘Pippin’ Finds Its Corner of the Sky

Pippin 1FRANKLIN, Tenn. – Pippin has tried (and often found) its corner of the sky since the musical hit Broadway in 1972. It certainly soars to the heights at Boiler Room Theatre.

The imaginative directing vision of Paul J. Cook has transformed the strolling players of the Stephen Schwartz/Roger O. Hirson/Bob Fosse smash into circus performers. That touch enhances the irreverence without removing the notes of menace that make this work darker and deeper than it appears at first glance.

Pippin 5The heavily fictionalized story of Charlemagne’s oldest son Pippin (played in his professional debut by Josh Lowery), adorned with 1970s-pop-style music, revolves around the title character’s search for meaning. He tries everything from war to art to sex, led on by a maniacally-smiling circus ringmaster known as the Leading Player (Billy Ditty).

Should he depose his father (W. Scott Stewart) and establish justice for all? Should he savor life without care as grandma Berthe (Dan McGeachy) advises? Should he settle down to the simple life with the lovely Catherine (Rosemary Fossee) and her son Theo (Hayden Gill)? Or should he follow the Leading Player into the unforgettable finale?

Part of what makes this Pippin sizzle is the homage Cook and his collaborators pay to the vision of the show’s creators. Choreographer Holly Shepherd knows that “Manson Trio” and other movements from the bawdy, bold and athletic Fosse canon are musts, and with veteran triple-threats like Vicki White and Corrie Miller in the cast such moments are thrilling.

Pippin 6White, Miller and their castmates can indeed dance, sing and act with equal appeal. Lowery is a wide-eyed gangly youth whose earnest and sweet rendition of “Corner of the Sky” makes his search for meaning feel real even within Pippin’s play-within-a-play conceit; Stewart is the boss with basso whose rich voice makes “War is a Science” and other numbers a delight; McGeachy is a hoot in the “No Time at All” sing-along; and Gill is a boy with the timing of a mature actor in his engaging portrayal of duck-loving Theo.

Pippin 7Reischa Feuerbacher deserves appreciation for her delicious turn as Charlemagne’s scheming wife Fastrada. Her angelic vibrato offers a wonderful tonal counter-point to her character’s disingenuous “Spread a Little Sunshine.”

Pippin 13What to say about Fossee? As usual she’s excellent. Performers twice her age rarely possess the combination of talent, timing, poise and presence Fossee has. And when she combines with Lowery on Act II’s “Love Song” it’s a match made in theatrical heaven.

Pippin 2Last, but decidedly not least, is Ditty. It’s been apparent for a long time Ditty can do virtually anything onstage or off to make a show sparkle, and in Pippin he fills each moment with pitch-perfect meaning. A dancer, a singer, an actor – those aren’t just titles for Ditty. His picture should be by those words in the dictionary.

Jamey Green and his bandmates – Rick Malkin, Doug Bright, Dale Herr and Tom McGinley – once again have the joint jumping. Nathan Hamilton’s set would make the Ringling Brothers proud; Lynda Cameron-Bayer has outfitted the players with her eye for character-framing garb as sharp as ever.

How does Boiler Room Theatre keep producing so many wonderful moments show after show? There’s probably more than one answer to that question. One thing’s for sure: After 12 years this Pippin shows BRT still has plenty of magic to do.

Pippin 11Pippin continues through July 28 at Boiler Room Theatre (The Factory at Franklin, 230 Franklin Rd., Bldg. Six). Performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. One Thrifty Thursday show is set for July 26 at 8 p.m. and there will be one Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. July 22. Get tickets ($27; $25 for seniors and students; $21 for children under 12; Sunday matinee tickets are $2 less each; all Tuesday shows are two-for-one at $27 with no other discounts; Thursday tickets are $17) or more information at (615) 794-7744 or www.boilerroomtheatre.com.

Pippin 3*Photos by Rick Malkin courtesy Boiler Room Theatre.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).