Chorale's `Pippin' is top-notch

Gifted cast and direction lift the musical


Arundel Live


From the first notes, the Annapolis Chorale's performance of the Stephen Schwartz musical Pippin was captivating.

The opening song, "Magic to Do," was so compellingly interpreted by the Annapolis Chamber Orchestra and chorus singing without words that I wanted the sound to continue without becoming a solo for the Leading Player - as the program dictates.

Always forging new horizons, music director J. Ernest Green started the 2005-2006 season Saturday at Maryland Hall with the Annapolis Chorale's first venture into rock opera - an exciting departure from past opening pops concerts. And once again, the stage was packed with musical talent and devoid of scenery - to let the most important element of music shine through.

The versatile chorus not only proved up to the challenge but had a rollicking good time creating new musical magic to tell the story of Charlemagne's son, Pippin, who sought fulfillment by dabbling in war, politics, social reform and earthly pleasures. This universal tale of teen angst, which won a Tony Award in 1973, has Pippin rebuke his father's social policies before adopting them himself, only to settle later for domesticity with the Widow Catherine.

Guiding Pippin on his journey while enlightening him and the audience, the Leading Player is crucial to telling the story and making the Holy Roman Empire relevant to today's audience. L.C. Harden Jr., in his local debut, proved adept at this task. Harden has abundant charm, charisma and stage presence to go along with an excellent voice that enhanced each song.

Exuding cool elegance and impressive vocal gifts, baritone Ryan DeRyke was perfectly cast in the title role, doing full justice to such songs as "Corner of the Sky." He conveyed earnestness and strength mixed with youthful naivete to make his Pippin touchingly human.

James Rogers gave a masterful portrayal of Pippin's father, King Charles (Charlemagne).

Versatile Laurie Hays stretched from her usual warm, hometown charmer roles to playing Pippin's scheming stepmother, Fastrada, a self-described "ordinary housewife and mother." She brought sharp humor to the role while manipulating fate to benefit her adored son Lewis, and she happily involved the audience.

Providing support, fun and chemistry to Hays' Fastrada, Peabody graduate student Jason Buckwalter shone as Lewis, moving so well that he might easily have been mistaken for one of the professional dancers on stage.

Mezzo Catrin Davies brought flair and fun to the role of Pippin's "still attractive" grandmother Berthe, providing a show-stopping "No Time at All" that got better with each chorus. This number's staging was fun, with a banner containing the words carried across the stage to encourage the audience to sing along.

Adding even more to the evening was musician-songwriter Dan Haas as the Featured Troubadour. Young Ben Hale lent the right element of childhood innocence playing Widow Catherine's son, Theo.

Carolyn Black-Sotir revealed a commanding stage presence as Widow Catherine, displaying superb acting skills and an impressive voice that lent luster to each of her songs.

Once again, music director Green proved to be well ahead of his Maryland Hall colleagues by having the vision to invite Ballet Theatre of Maryland artistic director Dianna Cuatto to choreograph for dancers Christi Bleakly, Joshua Lenihan, Brian Skates and Anmarie Touloumis. The dancers executed Cuatto's work flawlessly, adding an extra dimension to the performance.

The Annapolis Chorale continues its season on Nov. 5 with the opening classical concert "Heaven and Earth," featuring Anton Bruckner's Te Deum and Arrigo Boito's Prologue to Mefistofele.

Call the Annapolis Chorale office at 410-263-1906 for more information on subscriptions and individual concert tickets.

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