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LOU'S VIEWS: Civic Theatre's ‘Pippin’ lacks magic

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Lou Harry

With resources available that can make Equity theater companies salivate, the volunteer-acted Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre sometimes can be its own worst enemy.

Sure, there are times all the elements come together beautifully—as anyone who saw Civic’s “The Drowsy Chaperone” or “Ragtime” can attest. Those productions not only offered sets, costumes and tech credits on par with the best in central Indiana regional theaters, but also effectively provided a slap in the face to anyone calling its unpaid actors “non-professional.”
 

ae-pippinmain-15col.jpg In Civic’s hands, Stephen Schwartz’s popular musical includes Fosse-esque dance numbers, above, and suburban spoofing, below. (Photos/Zach Rosing)

 

ae-pippin-15col.jpg

On the other hand, there are Civic productions where the technical elements and the quality of the pit orchestra raise expectations that its onstage populace can’t match.

Case in point: “Pippin” (running through Sept. 21).

For those who haven’t seen any of the literally thousands of regional and high school productions—or the Ben Vereen original or current Broadway revival—of this Stephen Schwartz musical, here are the basics: Prince Pippin believes he’s destined for an extraordinary life and his unsatisfying search for purpose leads him to try war, sex, politics, rural life, and more. Steering him toward temptations is a tribe of theatrical types spearheaded by the Leading Player, by turns seductive and menacing. In case you are a first-timer, I won’t tell you what happens.

Yet in spite of flying harnesses, flash pots, and a “disappearance box,” this “Pippin” is woefully short on the magic promised in the opening number (which is delayed by an unnecessary and confusing silent prologue). Blame goes, in part, to dance numbers that were designed as showstoppers but here wear out their welcome long before they are through. Competence is no replacement for dazzle.

Nobody should expect Broadway-level talent, of course. But more than expert footwork, “Pippin” requires a unified vision and extraordinary balance. Its title character is about as petulant and needy as you’ll find on a musical theater stage. Yet we have to identify with his quest even as we know it’s unreachable.

 

Here, we have a Pippin who looks more like a young Stephen Colbert than what we’ve grown used to with the show—not a bad thing if you still root for him to find happiness. But there’s an authenticity missing both in his Pippin and in the suburban (rather than rural) conceptualization of his would-be life partner.

Civic’s production does have bright spots. The choral music, particularly in “Morning Glow” at the end of the first act, is strong. It’s got a fun 3D effect added, briefly, to the surefire sing-along number. And the incorporation of a new, Schwartz-sanctioned ending moment works beautifully. But when the best performance comes from an actor playing a disembodied head, clearly there are issues.

Ballet benefit—with updated mission—continues to shine

Except for “The Nutcracker”—or when Dance Kaleidoscope or Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre revives one of its earlier works—there are few opportunities for central Indiana residents to see the same dance piece more than once.

So when the Stuttgart Ballet’s Alicia Amatriain and Jason Reilly performed Itzik Galili’s caustically brilliant “Mono Lisa” back at the first Indianapolis City Ballet benefit in 2009, I thought I was having a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Yet there it was again, as the centerpiece in the second act of yet another can-you-top-this

ICB Evening with the Stars benefit Sept. 7. And the same duo was back to perform it.

It remained stunning, despite the introduction by George de la Peña, who did it a disservice by focusing attention on Amatriain’s extensions rather than letting the piece impact as a whole. His commentary throughout the evening offered little insight, often working against the pieces rather than enhancing them.

To be fair, it would be tough to enhance this level of excellence. If picking a highlight, I could just as easily point to Melissa Hamilton’s and Eric Underwood’s “Lieder,” Yuan Yuan Tan’s and Damian Smith’s “Distant Cries” or Andrij Cybyk’s extremely silly “Two Boys in a Fight”—in which Cybyk played both of the bundled-up boys—as I could to “Mono Lisa.”

One thing this ICB benefit didn’t offer this time around was talk of forming a resident world-class ballet corps here in Indy. Instead, Chairman Robert Hesse’s welcome pointed toward bringing international companies, rather than just their stars, to town.

A different—but certainly more attainable—goal. Bring ’em on.•

—Lou Harry

__________

This column appears weekly. Send information on upcoming arts and entertainment events to lharry@ibj.com.

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  • Special Effects
    I wanted to comment earlier about the attack of the review Lou Harry offered regarding the Civic production of "Pippin," but decided I should probably wait until I had seen the production myself. And I don't get it. // Few of "Gary"s assertions are accurate so that's not worth discussion, and Brian's comments are, as usual, smart and defining. I would suggest that the ticket price will do more to keep audience's away from certain community theatre than being mentioned in an IBJ review.// I think the current condition of Broadway is hurting the local theatre scene, and "Pippin" is a prime example. The new and the hottest revivals in NYC are full of cash costly special effects making more productions like a giant circus to attrack the dollars of New York tourists. Our "Pippin" was full of tricks and lights and floating bodies that seemingly took more planning time than the simple stuff of casting and pacing and character developement. It was definately theatrical and had a 'wow' factor, but it felt like there wasn't much going on in between effects. "Pippin" is similar to "Godspell" & "Joseph...Coat"--it's the story that should be the biggest special effect. Maybe Broadway these days has forgotten that too. As for INDY maybe we could spend less time trying imitate and find ways to make our productions our own.// To address one item from "Gary" regarding the prefessional abilities of actors who at one time or another had residence in New York City, I think it silly to continually give special credence to a NYC professional performer (unless they have Broadway Credentials)over an Indianapolis professional performer. The requirements of the moniker are the same. If the actor is right for the role, it doesn't matter where they reside. I did read my program and didn't find anyone with Broadway credits and found few New York Credits from anyone other than "Gary."
  • Grumble
    The previous post was a reply to Tommy's comment. See previous remarks re: the inferiority of this message board.
  • "Like"
    As they say on Facebook, "Like." And I second, third, and fourth your motion to demand performer pay at Civic.
    • yep...
      not much else needs be said....
    • Apoligies
      Lou, thanks for you response. I am probably too close to this to contribute articulately and objectively....'I get it.'... thank you for your insight and contribution to the arts here in Indy. Thank you for not being personally insulting and I wish you the best as you encourage the success of the arts here in Indy.....
    • Lou has a view -- big deal.
      Let's get something straight here: Lou is one person with an opinion. A person with an opinion that gets paid to share it. Lucky him! As a company for a local performing arts group, Lou has come to many of our shows -- some he loved, some he hated [as is his prerogative, even if he wasn't a "reviewer"]. If you truly think that Lou is out of line then hit the back button on your computer screen and let Facebook numb your mind. Then when it comes to perform, just perform the shit out of the show as if Lou's words never existed in the Internet ether. We all work too hard, especially those working in the arts professionally, and the only time we get a "performance evaluation" on our work is from reviewers (both professional and amateur alike). You are not going to make everyone happy, and unfortunately it was Lou this time. Prove Lou wrong. I have displeased Lou multiple times and I am still as happy as ever to see him in the audience, on the street, in the store, in Indy. Maybe you should channel all that anger and frustration toward Civic and demand performer pay....?
      • Limitations
        Apologies for the lengthy comment. I had it nicely separated into paragraphs, but apparently this message board does not accommodate such subtleties of formatting.
      • The job of a critic
        To anyone who might think Lou's review is "mean-spirited" . . . The job of the critic is not to be an undiscriminating cheerleader for the arts. In fact, it is quite the opposite. The critic's job is to be an advocate for the audience (the consumers) and quality control for the performers (the producers). The arts are unquestionably a source of immense civic value, but not all art is created equal, and the fact remains that a performance costs money. If patrons are going to spend nearly $50 on tickets to a community theatre production - and if a city is going to spend tens of millions of dollars on a venue for that community theatre - someone needs to be looking out for them. That's especially relevant for a business publication, don't you think? Furthermore, it does artists no good if they perform in an echo chamber where everything is praised equally. That devalues truly great performances and stunts the growth of talented people who could improve if they were given constructive criticism. Indy, despite a growing and vibrant cultural scene, continues to suffer from the Midwestern affliction of niceness. As Sondheim so succinctly said, "nice is different than good." A good critic is a true friend to the arts, who, like any true friend, will let you know when you slip up. A "nice" critic will speak only in bland pleasantries that ultimately insult the people they are intended to help. Also, the implication that a critic need be an expert practitioner of the art that s/he is criticizing is pure poppycock. Unless you are performing only for fellow artists who understand every aspect of your performance - in which case they're even more likely to notice your mistakes and missteps - you have to answer to an audience that is not trained in your art. The fact that a choreographer can watch a show and praise the choreography means nothing if an audience of laymen is bored by it. The job of a critic as audience member #1 is to interpret the performance as a layman is likely to see and understand it. Unless you're participating in a master class, the judgment of your fellow artists is subordinate to the judgment of the audience. If Indianapolis is ever going to achieve its potential to be a great city, everyone in every walk of life is going to have to learn how to accept criticism gracefully, and to adjust our performance accordingly, instead of throwing a fit when someone isn't as boringly polite as we'd like him/her to be.
        • He's a critic, deal with it
          Review his way right out of a job? Wow, someone (Gary) is pretty thin-skinned. Harry praised some aspects of the production and didn't like others. That's the role of the critic. Would you have cared about his dance experience if had raved about the choreography? Yeah, I didn't think so.
        • mean-spirited?
          Gary: I fear that your closeness to the show is causing you to read things into the review that are not there and miss things that are. For example, consider this: I never said that "Ragtime" and "Drowsy Chaperone" were the ONLY decent Civic productions in the last eight years. I simply wanted to point out that Civic productions can be and have been, qualitatively, on par with the best in the region. I could, instead, have left readers without that context. Would that have been preferred? "Mean-spirited" insultingly implies that I take pleasure in hurting someone's feelings or in tearing something down. If that were the case, I could easily have named names, something other scribes might have taken pleasure in but which I deliberately try not to do for community theater productions. If you see this review as mean-spirited, then you don't read much theater criticism. My job, contrary to your belief, is not to put butts in seats (nor to remove them). It's, in part, to encourage excellence, to write with care and thought and experience about what I see, to provide the reader with a multifaceted (previews/reviews/blog posts/news stories, etc.) view of what's going on in the Indy arts world, and to engage them in lively discussion for something I think matters greatly to the livability of the region. I am sorry you believe that my support of the art is "purported." Perhaps you would prefer that I didn't bother reviewing multiple productions each week (for, as far as I know, the only regional business weekly in the country--and one of the only pubs of any kind locally--to do so), leading discussions and talk-backs and serving on panels, organizing and hosting play readings and charity events, bringing out-of-town critics to Indy, hosting trips for Indy arts patrons to see productions in other cities, and writing about Indy events for publications elsewhere. If enough folks at Civic believe what I do is mean-spirited and that I am not serving a purpose for the arts community, than encourage the management to stop invited me to your productions. If, however, I am invited and do return, know that I will be taking my seat with an open heart and an open mind. And that I will write carefully and honestly about what I witness. Sincerely, Lou
          • Whoops
            Should have proofread...
          • Art
            Lou, I was perhaps to visceral in my initial post and I, as an artist, know better than to listen to a critic trying to judge art. However since you asked, I look at the arts here in Indy, after having lived in NYC for many years and am amazed that I was able to get $10 tickets to Night Music at IRT because they needed to paper the house of that amazing production. With arts funding being cut all over it is more important than ever for theatres to get "butts in seats" to survive. As a "purported" supporter of the arts you have an obligation, not to be dishonest but to craft an artful review, (even a poor review can be artfully crafted) that is provocative and would suggest that others might feel differently. By suggesting that one of the last good shows at Civic was nearly 8 years ago, clearly there are issued. Your mean spirited review will do nothing to encourage people to attend something they might actually enjoy if they were able to formulate their own opinion. It does nothing but suggest that folks should stay away at all costs. I find it ironic that you chose not to reveal what happens to Pippin for those "first timers" when you are clearly urging them not to bother experiencing the show. I am passionate out the success of the arts here in Indy and we must all work together to ensure that success by creating thought provoking opportunities both in performance and encouraging others to form their own opinion about what "good" art it. We should not be driving them from art. I hope that this post more objectively states my thoughts and will help us all be more involved in creating a positive, thriving and world class arts scene here in Indy.
            • Axes, etc.
              Gary, Thanks for your note. While it may trouble you to hear, I have no ax that requires grinding. If I can’t approach a work with an open mind and heart (as I did with Civic's 'Pippin'), I go elsewhere. As to your specific questions/issues, I’m happy to answer them but I’m guessing you aren’t terribly interested in hearing my resume recounted. Besides, as with what happens on stage, my bio shouldn’t matter. It’s the work that counts. I am curious, though, why you feel that one less-than-rave review of one production (a review that makes a point to praise previous productions by the same company) will either damage the arts in Indy or risk my job. I believe there’s a greater risk to the arts in having critics who feel obligated to only praise (or having no critics at all). And there's a greater risk to my job if I write dishonestly. I welcome other comments, as always. Sincerely, Lou
              • Your Dance Credits?
                Lou, clearly you have an axe to grind with this show. "no one should expect Broadway level talent" you evidently did not take the time to read the bios of those involved with this production. Many of us have succeeded as professional performers in NYC and in other professional organizations such as opera and dance companies. We have chosen to return to our roots and find the extraordinary in simplicity, much as the message of Pippin urges us to. I am curious to know what your previous dance and stage credits are that provide you with the wisdom to judge the level of dance competence when several of the performers were and ARE profesional dancers. Several local professional choreographers have seen the show and remarked that it provides some of the best dance they have seen in a local production in a long time. Your unwarranted and unfounded poor review do nothing to further the arts here in central Indiana when the arts have a tenuous foothold at best compared to many other locations. Careful or you might just poorly review yourself right out of job! My thought...if you can's do it, don't review it!~

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