I understand why Playhouse on the Square's executive producer Jackie Nichols has described Pippin as "the right play at the right time." Its themes mesh with the theater's mission, and the anti-war sentiments expressed in the first act are consistent with a company with roots in the 1960s and the chutzpah to open Hair in the aftermath of 9/11. It's also technically ideal for showing off the new theater's capabilities but minimal enough to give the technical staff some breathing room as they transition into the new space. I wish I liked the script more.
Pippin's a messy epic about a smart young prince trying to find his place in a dumb violent world. It's a disjointed, often hokey fable that goes in too many directions at once and is only held together by Stephen Schwartz' overrated soft-rock score. Warning: If you shudder when people start singing about soaring eagles and rambling rivers, this may not be the show for you. But see it anyway because Playhouse on the Square's production benefits greatly from an exceptional cast and Scott Ferguson's inventive and whimsical approach to the material. Although his Pippin may rely too heavily on projection at times, Ferguson understands that audiences respond best when you ask them to engage their imagination rather than suspend their disbelief. And this Pippin is all about the imagination.
Sean Blake brings the right combination of playfulness and menace to his role as the Leading Player. Alvaro Francisco makes Pippin a frustrated mix of wonder, discontent, and yearning. Kent Fleshman is appropriately bombastic as the emperor Charlemagne, and Kim Baker exudes a down-to-earth suburban charm as Pippin's love interest. The show's best moments, however, belong to Irene Crist as Pippin's grandmother. Crist engages directly with the audience in a bawdy number suggesting that the meaning of life is more sensual than intellectual and can only be discovered by living.
Through February 21st
If you want to know the secret of Jersey Boys' success, ask Steve Gouveia, who played Nick Massi when the Four Seasons bio-play opened on Broadway in 2005 and who has revived the part for the Jersey Boys tour currently docked at the Orpheum. "It's a guy show," Gouveia said over a plate of ribs at the Rendezvous. "There's lots of guys with guitars, there's mobsters, there's lots of profanity, and there's girls in their underwear. I mean, what more could you like if you're a guy?" That means that in addition to appealing to musical-theater fans, Jersey Boys has earned the affection of dudes who usually have to be dragged to the theater.
Jersey Boys has its priorities exactly right. The songs are perfect, the acting is solid, and the story is well-told. Physically and vocally, Joseph Leo Bwarie is a dead ringer for Frankie Valli, and he's given support by Gouveia, Matt Bailey, and Ryan Jesse, who are equally convincing as Massi, Tommy DeVito, and Bob Gaudio. Sarah Darling, Denise Payne, and Kara Tremel work overtime playing a variety of mothers, wives, b-girls, and entertainers and do a spot-on impersonation of the Angels singing "My Boyfriend's Back" like it was 1963 all over again. Although the Jersey Boys get all the glory, these three women play more than 50 characters and are, along with the rest of a tight ensemble, the show's secret stars.
Through February 14th
When Noël Coward described his play Fallen Angels as "extremely slight," he was being generous. The script is extremely thin without the benefit of being the least bit short. While it might make for an interesting character study in Theatre Memphis' studio space, it's difficult to imagine why anyone would waste a main-stage slot on such a pointless obscurity.
Written well before the sexual revolution, Fallen Angels follows two wealthy married women who grow increasingly drunk and hysterical as they anticipate the visit of a former lover. It's a gross caricature of friendship and femininity and nothing more. Even a fantastic cast that includes Jude Knight, Ann Sharp, and Mary Buchignani can't summon enough charm to salvage this comedic disaster. Chris McCollum, Theatre Memphis' inventive scenic designer, has caught the boring bug and assembled an elegant monstrosity that's a throwback to the days when Theatre Memphis' sets were typically overgrown doll houses.
Coward completists may enjoy the banter, but I make no promises.