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Theater reviews: Pippin & The Rocky Horror Show 

Charlemagne & Son Under the Big Top

Looking back at my review of the 2013 Broadway revival of Pippin, I'm amazed that I could have predicted that the touring version might be better. Nailed it! The Roger O. Hirson book for this early Stephen Schwartz musical has always been rather flimsy and derivative, basically the fables of Candide and The Fantasticks loosely transported to the Age of Charlemagne. But director Diane Paulus had a brilliant idea: keep the famed Bob Fosse-style choreography, substituting circus and magical spectacle for the original vaudeville style.

Trouble was, Matthew James Thomas was such a bland Pippin that he was terribly upstaged by everyone around him — Broadway power couple Terrence Mann and Charlotte d'Amboise as his royal parents, a Tony Award winning performance by Patina Miller as our emcee, another Tony winner by Andrea Martin as his grandma, and the bodacious circus performers from Les 7 doigts de la main. Yet my optimism about the touring version at Belk Theater took a gut punch when I opened my playbill and discovered that understudy Lisa Karlin would be replacing Sasha Allen in the Miller role as the Leading Player.

As it turned out, Karlin was pretty damn good, with a strong voice, jazzy Fosse movement, and a fraction of Miller's style and charisma. Further narrowing the imbalance between the emcee and Charlemagne's eternally questing son was the energy and verve that Kyle Dean Massey brought to Pippin. Suddenly our hero's songs — "Corner of the Sky," "With You," and "Morning Glow" — weren't medieval trials by ordeal.

Though Sabrina Harper isn't memorable as Charlemagne's conniving Queen Fastrada, John Rubinstein steers the emperor in a radically different direction from Mann's take on Broadway. Mann's bellicosity was funny because it was outsized and overdone (and mixed with some juggling). Rubinstein, the original Pippin on Broadway in 1972, is funny because his tyrannical barbarism emanates from such a frail and elderly frame.

With Adrienne Barbeau as the wise granny Berthe, the tour does boast some star power if your memory stretches back to her glory days on Maude, a TV sitcom that also premiered in 1972. Her acrobatic exploits didn't look as incongruous as Martin's did, though it turns out Barbeau is actually older, but I was happier with the way she led the saccharine "No Time at All" singalong.

The able acrobats sashay across the stage with quaint placards to mark Pippin's various stages in his quest for self-fulfillment — his forays into politics, warfare, creativity, and domesticity — so the vaudeville aspect of Schwartz's original vision isn't altogether discarded. Set design by Scott Pask and costumes by Dominique Lemieux turn the circus ambiance of Pippin into a dream big top. At the end, when Pippin runs out of ambitions and quests, you'll be glad to see that the dream lives on.

In their first stab at a musical, Citizens of the Universe discovered a cruel truth on opening night of The Rocky Horror Show at 100 Gardens on 36th Street. They need better equipment — and maybe better singers. At an opening night that sounded more like a tentative tech rehearsal, body mics buzzed, blared, or only worked intermittently. In his local debut as Rocky, for example, Zeke Jones was rarely heard above the pre-recorded accompaniment.

As the innocent couple that walk into a spooky household of sexually rapacious aliens, Bryan Green and Becca Whitesmith have a certain awkward charm as Brad and Janet. But previous Janets that I've heard had the ability to carry a tune. Whitesmith may be as tone-deaf as she sounded on Wednesday, or she may just have been finding it difficult to hear and sing with the canned accompaniment.

Costumes by Darcy Russell, choreography by Shannon Wightman-Girard, and makeup — plenty of it — by Mandy Kendall all bring plenty of fun to the evening. Fen Temple was a sight to behold, greeting the betrothed couple as Riff-Raff and sustaining a fine creepiness in the face of frequent sound dropouts. More fortunate in her miking was Kitty Beard, looking even more outré as the evil genius-dominatrix of the aliens, Frank 'N' Furter, who creates Rocky and sexually initiates both the lovebirds. Beard powered through the dropouts and left no doubt how striking Frank will be when technical difficulties are overcome.

As the wheelchair-bound Doctor Scott, James Cartee left nothing to chance, disdaining a microphone and bellowing the Doc's Germanic accent at fairly high decibels. There will be plenty to admire in Rose Avalon's stage direction if this Rocky ever achieves reasonable audibility. The silhouetted deflowering scenes work pretty successfully with Temple's set design, a reminder that lighting equipment isn't as temperamental as audio.

If COTU manages to solve their audio woes, perhaps they'll begin to draw more fervid, dedicated, and orthodox Rocky crowds. Little baggies are handed out as you enter, filled with the cards, newspaper, noisemakers, and oversized eyeglass frames that devotees might expect. Most of the folks at 100 Gardens on Wednesday night had little more idea what to do with these things than I did.

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