Review: FGCU blazes magical, musical trail with 'Pippin'

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Ensemble members in the FGCU production of 'Pippin.'

Courtesy FGCU

Ensemble members in the FGCU production of "Pippin."

Alex Feliciano (Pippin) and Gerritt VanderMeer (Leading Player) in the FGCU production of 'Pippin.'

Courtesy FGCU

Alex Feliciano (Pippin) and Gerritt VanderMeer (Leading Player) in the FGCU production of "Pippin."

IF YOU GO

What: Coming of age musical fable about a boy prince's struggle to find meaning and significance in his life

When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 4, 5, 6, 11, 12; 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 12 & 13

Where: Arts Complex on the FGCU campus

Cost: $7

Information: (239) 590-7268, http://theatrelab.fgcu.edu/

Something else: Some profanity

On the Web: More theater news at The Stage Door blog

Stephen Schwartz musical "Pippin" follows a young man on a quest for his place in the universe. Appropriate then that this production takes place at Florida Gulf Coast University, where thousands of students are thrashing out those issues - hopefully in the same bright, bold and beautiful fashion.

The show, now enjoying a circus-inspired Broadway revival, uses a ragtag group of carnival performers to present a fairy-tale version of the reign of Charlemagne. Folk rock songs with a 1970s, Janis Joplin flavor flirt with sexuality, politics, depression, warfare, family dynamics and more - right on up to the search for the meaning of life. Hint: it's 42.

"Pippin" represents the first musical for FGCU's theater program. The school brought down Dominic Missimi, the founder of Northwestern's musical theatre program, to direct. Troy Jones from the Bower School of Music serves as music director, conducting an excellent six-piece student orchestra.

A faculty-wide effort, theatre program assistant director Michelle Hayford co-produces the show, with technical director Anne Carnecross overseeing a large crew of students in an impressive light show and other behind-the-scenes ventures. Faculty artist Gerritt VanderMeer, a professional actor whose bio lists appearances in 47 states, anchors the show as its brash, obstreperous Leading Player.

FGCU's Black Box Theatre does not spring to mind as the first place to host a musical. Like most of "Pippin" though, the surprise lands both unexpected and delightful. The cozy venue cuddles the show, making it warm, intimate and disguising the cramped faults and sometimes meagre voices.

The current FGCU program has no musical theatre concentration. The show would never be able to match - or even come close - to the glitz of Broadway or even the best of regional theater. Instead, Missimi and choreographer Lynn Neuman smartly create a stripped-down, scrappy, heartfelt version that captures every bit of emotion (and then some) of the 1970s-era original.

"Pippin" emerges - like VanderMeer's character from the circus box at the center of the stage - a wonderful, wildly costumed, wish-fulfilled walk through fantasyland. Word of advice: skip the extra drink(s) - the first act clocks in at an hour-plus.

While not perfect (no one expects it to be), "Pippin" captures the rambunctious, free-spirited delight of its rowdy '70s origins. A diverse cast, beaming with smiles and dressed in a rainbow of borrowed costumes unite in a bright, funky circus vibe. Full credit to the ensemble - from first to last - each commits to the outrageous, fun-loving and over-the-top spirit.

The array of stripes, prints, glitter, flowers, feathers, sequins, greasepaint and more - all looking as if it emerged from the bottom of a moth-eaten trunk - gives "Pippin" an air of tattered, faded decadence. Occasional squeals of feedback, a bare stage and voices that aren't Martha Raye or Irene Ryan give the show a ring of authenticity. This is college theatre. This is the 1970s - and the Janis Joplin feel of the lyrics never felt so beautiful.

I cannot fault "Pippin" for leaning on adults VanderMeer (he's exceptional in a role that showcases both voice and acting) and a strong, snarky and confident Michael Kolakowski (Charles). The show needs these tentpole portrayals for the students to rally around - as well as serve as living, learning examples of vivid performances to emulate.

Still, I hope to see an all-student cast in the next musical; the talent is there. One need look only to Florida Repertory Theatre's conservatory program, where Rachael Endrizzi and her team produced a superb version of "Pippin" using high school talent in 2012.

Alex Feliciano, a University of Central Florida transfer, brings a gorgeous clear voice and an aimless cluelessness to the title character. White jeans, an orange tank top and a dazed expression serve as his only armor while Pippin drifts from battle to regicide to debauchery to repairing chicken houses. He captures the innocence and disorientation of the character; the college student feels almost too much at home as the listless prince.

Eboni Martin sparkles as manipulative Fastrada. Slinky in a delicate pastel candy box gown and low heels, she purrs - until it comes time to belt "Spread A Little Sunshine." The defiant anthem finds her tossing brawny, jocular, in-on-the-joke (and quite funny) newcomer Mark Hancock's Lewis all over the floor.

One of the true delights of Missimi's production - he uses the black box space to make the often-troublesome second half of "Pippin" feel both relevant and less like an add-on. Credit here goes to Katie Friedman's Catherine.

Warm, inviting and able to convey acres of emotional depth (along with acres of skin in that corset!), Catherine helps Pippin find his "Corner of the Sky." Look too for deadpan (and foul-mouthed) one-liners from Sawyer True as her son Theo.

FGCU cannot offer a lineup of six-foot-tall Broadway-ready chorus boys and gamine chorines on slinky legs parading around on four-inch heels. It never will - and it never should. "Pippin" is not about that anyway.

"Pippin" is about magic. And beauty - inner beauty. Underneath the greasepaint, gemstones, striped leggings, feathers and flowers, there sits a still pool of feelings and friendship. Prince Pippin learns that. Kind of like going to college, no?

What's your favorite song from "Pippin?" Email me, csilk@naplesnews.com, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.

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