What with its Brechtian overtones, its heavily pop music-influenced score and its fanciful yet intriguing story, Pippin remains one of the most-misunderstood-and I daresay debated-musicals in contemporary theater history. Now, in a sumptuous production at Boiler Room Theatre that features an imaginative concept by peripatetic director Paul Cook, the expressive choreography of Holly Shepherd, the confident musicianship of Jamey Green and his band of players, and the beautiful designs of costumer Lynda Cameron Bayer and set designer Nathan Hamilton, Pippin is finally welcomed back to Music City after far too long an absence.
There may have been other local productions of Pippin that I missed, but the last one I remember was in the late 1980s, when Circle Players presented it with a cast that included Martha Wilkinson and Nancy Clymer Brown. Thanks to the fabulous Green brothers-Jamey and Corbin, the wunderkind pair who have kept BRT thriving for twelve years-Nashville area audiences are treated to the Stephen Schwartz gem (which features a book by Roger O. Hirson, with additions to the libretto from original director Bob Fosse, whose enduring impact on the show continues to be felt in oh so many ways) with a revival that is entertaining and engaging, with Cook's direction and concept providing the framework in which his exceptional cast of actors are allowed to, in more ways than one, strut their stuff. The result is yet another feather in the already feather-heavy BRT cap.
Led by the maniacally perfect Billy Ditty as the appropriately named "Leading Player," the 14-member ensemble deliver a thoroughly focused performance, never straying from the job at hand to endanger the success of the production. That focus is necessary, of course, given the intimate confines of the playing space and the amount of action that transpires on that postage stamp-sized stage. The action, in fact, never stops and choreographer Shepherd-obviously channeling the spirit and the nature of the master Fosse himself-gives the actors a lot to do. Quite frankly, this may be one of the best choreographed musicals ever mounted at the Boiler Room, so evocative is every movement and so expertly performed is every number.
Cook's concept for the musical-which seems at first glance a confection of frippery and foppery, but upon deeper investigation reveals a work of much deeper meaning and import-casts The Players as members of a ragtag circus of sorts (although Cameron's exquisite costumes might belie that description) who defy convention and present a play filled with magic, comedy, tragedy, music and romance that somehow confounds logic, yet manages to intrigue and entertain. It's a winning concoction that completely envelopes the entirety of the venue, with The Players taking their action throughout the space, involving the audience in their high-spirited hijinks and, thereby, drawing them into the story more effectively.
Cook's direction ensures that the Pippin onstage at the Boiler Room is somewhat darker and more foreboding than you might suspect-perhaps more akin to the aims of the show's creators at its birth. The story, however slight and effervescent it may seem, is far weightier than you might suspect. As the story of Pippin (played by Josh Lowery) is revealed-he is the eldest son of Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor-we see the vague and vapid young man develop into someone of more consequence and gravitas. With his head at first turned by the adulation and adoration of his royal subjects, Pippin ultimately realizes the follies of his youth and sets off on a journey of self-discovery and the search for meaning in his heretofore inconsequential existence.