Local theater marquees the last several months have gone retro, promoting popular shows first produced 40 or 50 — or more — years ago: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Music Man, The Fantasticks, The Mousetrap, Little Shop of Horrors.
That's not a complaint. Plays are revived, sometimes revitalized, made continually relevant (hello, Shakespeare). And if an entirely new audience or new generation is seeing it for the first time, it's new to them.
The 1972 Broadway hit Pippin has been resuscitated to open Kansas City Repertory Theatre's 2012–13 season. The show ran on Broadway for nearly five years and was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, winning five (including for Bob Fosse's choreography). Many of its songs were covered by pop stars in the '70s. Even so, the musical (book by Roger O. Hirson, music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz) for some reason hasn't left a lasting impression on the public consciousness.
It isn't set in a particular time or place, so the action could be anytime, anyplace. The Rep's production, directed by Eric Rosen, lifts the story from its pop mold with driving, electric music, and a high-tech set (by Jack Magaw) composed of moving parts and see-through screens and visible stage lights. Parts of Act 1 come on like a rock show, with the lights (designed by Jason Lyons) often pulsing over the audience as though luring moshers. Still-relevant lyrics strike a chord, and the steady music (performed live by Daniel Doss, Brandon Draper and Curtis Oberle) bursts forth from the stage. (The night I attended — the final preview, September 20 — the woman to my right voiced her approval early and often, like a concertgoer.)
As the play opens, Leading Player (the accomplished Wallace Smith) appears in a kind of pod, slowly emerging into light and coming into view, in a sequence resembling an awakening, or birth. Leading Player is a narrator of sorts, though he's ingrained in the story of Pippin, a young man just out of college, looking for meaning in life.
Pippin (a credulous Claybourne Elder, looking the part) sings about his dreams, which have a way "of sticking to the soul." He doesn't want to spend his life on "commonplace, ordinary pursuits." He's a kind of golden boy, a prince — "pippin" means "a person or thing much admired" — the first son of a fictional Charlemagne called Charles (the adroit John Hickok), who is married to his second wife, Fastrada (a terrific Katie Kalahurka), a shopaholic, scheming wife. Pippin's younger, not-so-bright half-brother, Lewis (energetically and hilariously played by Sam Cordes), knows what he wants: to please his mother and succeed his father. But Pippin doesn't have that certainty. He says he feels "empty and vacant."
"Everything he wanted wasn't what he had," Leading Player sings to the audience. "Aren't you glad you don't feel like that?" Ha! We're the knowing witnesses to the journey as Pippin flits from one thing to another, seeking fulfillment. (He doesn't need a job.) Leading Player orchestrates Pippin's quest, from war to physical pleasure to politics — life lessons all, told in a tongue-in-cheek, if not a satiric enough, way.
The inexperienced but likable Pippin visits his grandmother, Berthe (Mary Testa, portraying a more 21st-century grandma — an arresting mix of Paula Deen and Elaine Stritch but saucier), who offers her advice in a funny and rousing rendition of "Simple Joys." Later in the show, we meet Catherine (Katie Gilchrist, in a sensitive performance) and her young son, Theo (Utah Boggs, making his KC Rep debut).
"Wow," my neighbor uttered after each song, impressed over and over by the sharp music, clever lyrics, flashing lights, and talented actor-singers. But I, like Pippin, still wanted something more. Act 2 almost did the trick that night. Its shift in tone allows presentation and message to meld, delivering something more affecting than what has come before. Yet even then, and for all the production's overall razzle-dazzle, this Pippin found just a degree of fulfillment.
Spring Awakening, also emerging from another era, holds parallels to young lives today. The Coterie has begun its new season with the 2006 musical (book and lyrics by Steven Sater, musical score by Duncan Sheik), which also earned 11 Tony Award nominations. It won eight, including Best Musical.
The show is based on an 1891 German play (by Frank Wedekind), and it reflects that time, that country, that way of life. The teens in this story have little outlet for exploring their ideas, thoughts or feelings, let alone their sexual curiosity. Certain books are not accessible, and some questions don't get asked. Just sitting and watching Act 1, I could feel the straitjacket.
The adults have strict lines to walk, too — there was suffering to go around in that society — but the focus stays on the teenagers. (Youth suicide saw a big bump in 1880s Prussia.) The songs are stirring and touching, and the recentness of their composition brings some modernity as well as comic relief ("Totally Fucked") to a tale about repression, burgeoning sexuality, abuse and suicide.
Will Amato, Noah Whitmore and Caroline Elizabeth Drage lead a good cast of teenage characters including Shelby Floyd, Shea Coffman and Kristen May Altoro. In multiple adult roles, Shelley Wyche and Hughston Walkinshaw give strong portrayals.
The show, a Coterie at Night production (for those aged 13 and older), is an appropriate pick for the 20th anniversary of the Coterie's Dramatic Health Education Project, whose aim is to provide teenagers with health information, focusing on STD and HIV/AIDS prevention. Before each performance, an eight-minute documentary (by Rebecca Basaure) is shown about the work of DHEP in the community. The musical that follows reminds us that abuse, fear and ignorance are still with us, and growing up still isn't easy.Editor's note: The print version of this review incorrectly identifies Curtis Oberle as Pippin's music director. Curtis Moore is music director; Curtis Oberle plays guitar in the production's band.