Small stage magically expands in Spotlighters' spiffy 'Pippin'

May 20, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

"Magic To Do" is the best-known song from the 1972 musical "Pippin," and director/choreographer Todd Pearthree has definitely proved he can work magic in the two seasons his Musical Theatre Machine has been in residence at the Spotlighters Theatre.

In his sparkling production of "Pippin" at the tiny downtown theater, Pearthree mines panache out of a mediocre show. Largely a period piece, "Pippin" has a book by Roger O. Hirson about an 8th-century prince who undergoes a 1970s-style zTC identity crisis. Paired with this fairly dippy plot is an almost equally dippy score by Stephen Schwartz.

Pearthree's slick choreography is evident from the opening "Magic To Do" number, in which the cast moves in slow, fluid, abracadabra motions -- their hands and faces illuminated by spotlights embedded in the raised stage floor.

The use of these spotlights is typical of the touches Pearthree -- together with set designer Bob Jones and lighting designer Todd Sestero -- brings to the Spotlighters' postage-stamp stage. In a subsequent scene, the home of Pippin's infamous father, Charlemagne, is represented by a huge red scarf that is pulled out of a trap door and attached, tent-style, to a centrally located ceiling hook and the four pillars at the corners of the stage.

Heading the cast in the role of the Leading Player, Shawn Doyle combines a strong voice with the sharp and slightly slimy presence of an emcee with a Mephistophelean streak. In the title role, Billy Burke has the proper bright-eyed, wet-behind-ears air, even though his singing shows a bit of strain.

The half-dozen character roles are portrayed in a manner as colorful as designer Judy Holland-Geary's jewel-toned costumes. Tiffany A. Walker is especially notable as Pippin's conniving stepmother; whenever this schemer kicks up her heels, Walker seems to be aiming those kicks in someone's direction. There's also a brief but spirited turn by Spotlighters' founder Audrey Herman as Pippin's with-it grandma.

Pearthree has said this production may be one of the Musical Theatre Machine's last at the Spotlighers. Next season, he plans to produce shows at several venues, including a suburban dinner theater. This will help bring his work to the larger audiences it deserves, but in the meantime, there's still a chance see the ingenious way in which he manages to shrink the scale of a Broadway musical without shrinking its style.

At the end of "Pippin," the title character compromises his quest to be extraordinary, settling for a quiet domestic life. Unlike Pippin, Pearthree never seems to compromise his productions -- even in this diminutive theater-in-the-round. Instead, just as the restrictions of a sonnet can prove liberating to a gifted poet, so have the Spotlighters' physical restrictions prompted inspired solutions by Pearthree.

"Pippin"

Where: Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St.

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through May 29

Tickets: $15

Call: (410) 825-2554

*** 1/2

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