Despite the modest surroundings of the Karger Center in Highland Park, Jessica Redish, the founding artistic director of the Music Theatre Company, is doing a lot to fill the North Shore gap left by the now-defunct Apple Tree Theatre.
Redish's new production of "Pippin," the much-loved but mighty-tricky musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz ("Wicked") and a book by Roger O. Hirson, comes with eight Equity actors and a five-piece orchestra. The singing is top-drawer. The energy is infectious. The gestalt is youthful and vibrant. And, to her great credit, Redish does not let herself get hemmed in by cramped quarters — she delivers quite a formidable level of spectacle.
The work still to be done involves tonal consistency and finding a clear point of view.
I've seen "Pippin," a fantastical show set in A.D. 780 and featuring the coming-of-age travails of the son of Charlemagne, twice in recent months; the BoHo Theater produced the show in October in a similar size venue on Chicago's North Side. Redish's production is by far the better of the two, not the least because Andrew Keltz is a charming presence in the title role. Although he's a perky young fellow onstage, Keltz also infuses his performance with a shrewdly conceived dark tone. And Jess Godwin is quite delightful as Catherine, the woman who tempts this young prince with the pleasures of domestic bliss with an ordinary kind of woman. This show also enjoys the vocal prowess of James Rank, who plays Charlemagne, and Redish even has the veteran Peggy Roeder, no less, throwing herself into the role of Berthe and offering a knockout, fun-loving cameo with the big number "No Time at All."
But "Pippin," which features a loose set of internal rules and a kind of touchy-feely self-awareness popular in 1972, when the show first was produced, offers one challenge above all: How do you cohere styles that, depending on the moment, go from childish naivete to Brechtian edge, and from striking emotional simplicity to campy theatricality? Put another way, how do you stage a show with one foot in "Godspell" and one in "Chicago"?
One strategy is to focus on the score, which is formidable: "Magic to Do," "Corner of the Sky" and "Morning Glow" are all in this show. Another strategy, which various "Pippin"-loving folks currently are batting around in London and on the East Coast, is to create more of a circus- or magic-driven iconography for this romp through the Holy Roman Empire. But the issue with Redish's production — although there is much to like here — is that it tends to be trapped in that zone of ambivalence between honest simplicity and fake razzmatazz. So is the material, one might argue. But be that as it may, coherence still needs to emerge from any contemporary "Pippin" in a way that doesn't happen here.
Some directors in intimate spaces use the intimacy as the core of their aesthetic. Others simply stage a big show in a small theater. Ideally, Redish would get away from the latter and move more toward the former: For example, the performers feel quite dislocated from the musicians in this production, when a close relationship would, in this space, be easy to forge. The production, sometimes warm, sometimes chilly, also is unsure about how personal it wants to get with the audience. And the design is similarly bifurcated. "Pippin" is wandering around in modern dress, but the ensemble sports costumes (by Jessica Snyder) that are more in line with sexy French mimes.
All in all, there are a few too many styles in play for one to get one's head on the right track, and although the Leading Player, the show's narrator, is in the capable hands of Joey Stone, that crucial character does not do anything one has not seen before. And with an ambitious new company full of highly skilled artists, it does not have to be thus.
When: Through May 6
Where: Karger Center, 1850 Green Bay Road, Highland Park
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
Tickets: $40 at 847-579-4900 or themusictheatrecompany.org