Troupe's energy powers `Pippin'

Musical: Talent Machine's rendition of the Dark Ages fantasy is a spirited success.


Arundel Live

August 05, 2004|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When director-choreographer Bobbi Smith's Talent Machine theater troupe began clicking on all cylinders a decade or so ago, her shows were notable for their energy, overall pizazz and depth of talent.

"Catch the energy" was Smith's mantra, and her young charges bought into it wholeheartedly. Intensity never flagged, with youngsters in the third row downstage right smiling and selling their steps as determinedly as the featured kids hoofing front row and center.

For sheer glamour, no one in these parts could top a vintage Smith show. The Key Auditorium stage (not even a full-service theatrical venue) could "Shuffle off to Buffalo" via a chain of sleeper car berths one year (42nd Street, 1993), and be transformed into a pelting rainstorm (Singin' in the Rain, 1994) the next.

And through it all, the talent, nurtured so painstakingly by the demanding, diminutive director with the flouncy blond ponytail, kept coming and growing, and growing and coming.

This walk down memory lane was inspired by Talent Machine's production of the Stephen Schwartz musical Pippin, at Key Auditorium on the campus of St. John's College through Aug. 15. For although Smith died in 2001, and that first generation of actors has moved on to other stages in other venues, energy, pizazz and depth of talent continue to rule the Talent Machine roost, and Pippin is wonderful proof.

A fractured historical tale of Pippin (called Pepin in the textbooks), son of Charlemagne, architect and emperor of the medieval Holy Roman Empire, the story casts the prince as an addled youth out to find "extraordinary" meaning in life and failing miserably in the process. Violence, political activism and hedonism don't cut it for him. Neither does the spectacular flaming suicide proffered to him by the Leading Player, the diabolical song-and-dance man whose commentary sets the direction for Pippin's journey. In the end, sigh, only love and commitment will do.

With two male leads, three featured females and an entire company of 13- to 18-year-olds playing magicians, kings, soldiers and seductresses, Pippin and Talent Machine are made for each other.

In the troupe's tradition, the intensity is high every step of the way. Facial energy pings off the stage in "War Is a Science," Charlemagne's zippy disquisition on the art of armed conflict. The choreography shared by Pippin and the Leading Player in "Right Track" is spirited and wonderfully athletic.

On the pizazz front, one is swept away immediately by the opening "Magic to Do" that mutates from a ballet of nothing but white gloves to a glittering ensemble piece that gets things off to a rousing and colorful start.

And the talent is deep to a fault.

Darren Biggart is a delightful Pippin, an articulate, funny presence on stage with an attractive tenor voice and a flair for movement. His singing could be a bit more commanding in the final sequence - but what a polished performance he gives the rest of the way.

He's matched step by step by Matt Keffer, who lights up the stage as the Leading Player. His upper register could use some time in a voice studio, but he sings with true showbiz elan, and his movements are a joy to watch.

Karley Willocks catches the understated irony of Catherine, the young widow Pippin loves, leaves and loves again, while Elena Crall hits like a ton of bricks as Frastrada, Charlemagne's scheming wife who wants the throne for her son, Lewis, and maybe Lewis himself in the bargain. Ross Koenig is hilarious as the doltish mamma's boy.

The other female standout, Ashley Burke, is feistiness personified as Pippin's libidinous Granny, whose advice sends our hero down the slippery slope of sensuality for a time.

Energy, pizazz and depth of talent. The tradition continues.

Talent Machine's "Pippin" plays Thursday through Sunday at Key Auditorium on the campus of St. John's College through Aug. 15. Call 410-956-0512 for details.

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