While covering the performing arts throughout Central Indiana, I have always done my best to uncover best-kept secrets. And just when I thought I had discovered them all, I was contacted by Ty Stover, director of “Pippin,” alerting me that his show was opening in a few days and asked if I would attend. Informing me that it was being held at Herron High School on Indy’s near Northside, I immediately agreed because not only do I like the musical, I was curious about the collaboration behind it. That would be Indiana Performing Arts Initiative (IPAI), under the umbrella of Claude McNeal Productions, whose shows I had not seen since he was artistic director of the former American Cabaret Theatre, in partnership with StageQuest Theatricals, operated by Stover. I also had no idea there was a theater in Herron High School. As it turns out, the space is called Russell Hall and was formerly a gallery when the building was the Herron School of Art, now located on the IUPUI campus.
“Pippin” with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (“Godspell” and “Wicked”) and book by Roger O. Hirson, premiered on Broadway in 1972 and was directed by Bob Fosse. The show, which was revived on Broadway in 2013, closed two years later. The musical features a troupe of performers, led by the charismatic Leading Player, who tells the story of Pippin. He’s a guileless, young prince who longs to find passion and adventure in his life. To prove his loyalty to his indifferent father, King Charles, Pippin goes to war. But when the Leading Player convinces the prince to fight tyranny, Pippin kills his father. Later, regretting his mistake, he begs the Leading Player to bring the king back to life. Much to the Leading Players’ irritation, the prince falls in love with Catherine, a widow with a young son, and struggles to decide if he should settle down and pursue an ordinary life or rejoin the troupe of performers for a more exciting one.
Bringing this story to compelling life under Stover’s astute direction, in collaboration with producer Jeff Owen, was an outstanding cast, consisting of student and adult avocational actors, alongside professionals, that featured some of the best performances I have seen on any stage thus far this season. Dave Pelsue, who has impressed me with his comic skills in Defiance Comedy productions, showed he has formidable acting and singing chops in a performance that was powerful and larger than life.
Josiah McCruiston, who played King Charles, and a performer I have long admired for his commanding stage presence, showed uncommon dramatic and vocal talent as an imposing authoritarian who rules his kingdom with an iron fist.
Showing star quality was Cameron Brown as the fresh-faced, naive Prince, who has to undergo adversity and disappointment before finding the meaning of life. Brown, who is an Indiana University theatre student, displayed a naturalness and ease on stage that fit his sweet, likable character to a T. A tenor with a gorgeous vocal tone, he touched me deeply when he sang the show’s most recognizable song “Corner of the Sky.”
Hannah Elizabeth Boswell also stood out for her role as the practical, understanding, down-to-earth widow who falls in love with Pippin. Also strong as an actor and singer, Boswell was affecting when she sang “Love Song,” a duet with Pippin and solos of “And There He Was” and “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man.”
Stealing scenes with his comic take on Charles’s dimwitted son Luis was Ben Fraley, as he pranced and preened about the stage, shirtless and in leather pants, eliciting laughter from an audience that delighted in his hilarious, campy antics.
In past productions of professional and community theatre versions, the set and costumes have followed various visions, some period and others more contemporary. In Stover’s version, the players’ costumes match their characterizations, making them appear dark, sinister and infused with an S-&-M vibe in a setting that is gritty and urban, enhanced by the edgy set designed by Pelsue and Matt Cunningham’s spectaular lighting design. The ingenious costumes were created by a team consisting of Boswell, Jerry Panatieri, Jill Wooster, Callie Hartz and Ron and Michelle Melton.
Responsible for the show’s Fosse-inspired choreography was Emily Jordan, who oversaw the ensemble that showcased her work during production numbers that were well-executed and tight.
Making the most of Schwartz’s catchy score was music director Ginger Stolz, who also played the piano, guitar and keyboard, along with Amy Johnson, also on keyboard, Larry Molnar on drums and Ainsley Paton on bass.
Yet further proof of the wealth of talent that exists in these parts, “Pippin” was an unexpected treat I highly recommend for those who appreciate innovative, well-produced, live entertainment that you should see before it closes on July 21.
For “Pippin” tickets, visit www.ipai.tix.com or buy at the door.