Unarmed but dangerous

Don't let Deep Ellum Opera Theatre's Pippin mug you

My poor planning occasionally triggers a situation that every critic should experience--I sometimes actually pay for admission to the shows I review. When I don't have time to make the advance call necessary for comps, I just dig into my own pocket.

Tragic as this scenario is, do hold your tears. People often complain that live theater has been pushed into an elitist corner because Joe and Jane Sixpack can't afford to fork over the 15, 20, or more bucks that some of the best theater companies in town charge for tickets (adjust this figure upward considerably if you were paying in New York or Los Angeles).

Since I'm a champion of an art form that some people claim is either irrelevant or dying, I rail against this shallow financial excuse, mustering the usual arguments--most companies offer preview or matinee shows at reduced rates; tickets to other live events such as concerts or sports competitions are even more expensive, yet people manage to fork over for that; the cost of a movie is steadily climbing; and the relative unpopularity of theater is what makes seeing a good show such a revelation, because there's nothing like a talented actor steering an emotional roller coaster while you ride co-pilot.

In some part of my soul, I still believe all those things. But a sobering darkness recently descended on me--I paid $20 of my own dough to see a Friday-night performance of Deep Ellum Opera Theatre's Pippin.

Let me rush to add that this was my fault, not DEOT's. Their very friendly publicist, Cindy Denmark, called me to extend a personal invitation for opening night. Since I couldn't attend, she encouraged me to pick up the phone and let her know what night I'd come; comps would be waiting at will call.

I declined to do this, partly because I wanted to know what it felt like to invest something in a musical--besides three hours of my time. Like a rich white Southern lady on Easter visiting poor black neighborhoods with candy-egg baskets for the children, my arrogance was disguised as an act of charity--I thought giving of myself would let me know what the "average" theatergoer faced when making the decision about what to do on a Friday night.

But twenty bucks? Separating pocket change from lint while paying at the box-office window, I suddenly had an epiphany--notorious critical dodges like "an interesting failure" or "a qualified success" wouldn't do to justify this show. For 20 bucks, DEOT's version of Bob Fosse's Pippin would have to bedazzle me--its memory would have to accompany me home, spend a passionate night of whoopee, then cook me a gourmet breakfast the morning after.

Instead, I was dogged throughout the performance by one persistent thought--"I'd rather be watching Con Air."

Pippin is a cheeky, anachronistic romp about an eighth-century Roman prince who sets out on a journey of personal discovery through life's most celebrated masculine rituals, including war and sex. You probably remember it as the Broadway musical that made Ben Vereen a household name. As performed by DEOT's wildly erratic cast, Pippin lurches and quivers across the stage like a badly constructed Trojan horse.

Pippin (the enthusiastic, bland Ruben Navarro) returns from intensive tutoring in Padua to his arrogant but shrewd father, the Roman emperor Charles. All that concentrated education in philosophy and mathematics didn't answer any of the curious Pippin's questions. Indeed, he returns with a fresher sense of yearning and embarks on a series of misadventures that will include revolution and patricide in his earnest desire to fill the emptiness inside him. Whether he's firing verbal darts at his fey, narcissistic half-brother Lewis (Nye Cooper) or taking the advice of his libidinous grandmother Bertha (Teresa Hicks) to sow his wild oats while he still can, Pippin invests 100 percent of his heart in everything, but can't understand why the returns are so paltry. As you might guess, the love of a good woman (Courtney Stanford) is the brass ring he'd been aiming for all along.

The most obvious problem with Deep Ellum Opera Theatre's production is a surprisingly fundamental one--various members of the cast seem physically inadequate for all the singing and movement their roles require. Keith Canady plays Leading Player, the wry ringmaster of Pippin's exploits, and the physical demands of the role leave him breathless during some of the key songs. He didn't appear to be out of shape, but he either had a respiratory problem that night or lacked the breathing discipline one assumes to be a basic prerequisite for musical theater. Canady was visibly straining midway through the opening number, "Magic To Do."

Teresa Hicks as grandmother Bertha had a less pronounced version of the same problem, but her deficiency was in the area of characterization--she seemed to be flying what could have been this musical's show-stopping role on autopilot. I'm primed to love any Rubenesque matriarch who wears her carnality like a corsage, but Hicks' performance of the hedonist's anthem "No Time At All" was half-hearted, hesitant, and strangely detached.

The real star of Pippin was Lynne Rutherford as Fastrada, the protagonist's scheming stepmother. Her big tune, "Spread a Little Sunshine," was easily the high point of the evening. Rutherford wrung every ounce of self-deception and rationalization out of this potently ironic ditty. The tune had her sugar-coating her own plans to pit Pippin against his father as a goodwill campaign. Rutherford savored her own mean-spiritedness and hypocrisy, so I did too.

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