On Stage (Bonus): Pippin still enchants

By Denny DyroffStaff Writer, The Times

There are two productions coming to the area this week that both tell a story and have circus elements.

The hit musical “Pippin” will open at the Playhouse on Rodney Square (10th and Market streets, Wilmington, Delaware, 302-888-0200, www. duponttheatre.com) on March 7 and run through March 12.

Cirque du Soleil’s “TORUK – The First Flight” will open at the Wells Fargo Center, Broad Street below Pattison Avenue, Philadelphia, https://www.cirquedusoleil.com/usa/philadelphia/toruk/buy-tickets/) on March 8 and run through March 12.

Usually, the Broadway shows that go out on national tours are either relatively recent shows that have garnered awards and generated attention from social media or classics in semi-permanent touring rotation such as “Annie,” “Beauty and the Beast” or “Rent.”

“Pippin” does not fall into either category. Despite winning Tony Awards both with the original production in 1972 and the Broadway revival in 2013, “Pippin” has not spent much time in national tour mode.

Prior to its run in Philly last February, the last time tours of “Pippin” visited this area were 2006 at the DuPont Theater in Wilmington and 2007 at the Forrest Theatre in Philadelphia (with former Monkee Mickey Dolenz in the role of King Charlemagne).

The tour that hit Philly last year is now playing in Europe and a new national tour is travelling back-and-forth across America.

One thing you should know is that the title character in the stage show has nothing to do with “The Lord of the Rings”. The Pippin in this show is definitely not Pippin – one of the names used by Peregrin Took in Tolkien’s tales. The Pippin in “Pippin” is Pippin, the son of Charlemagne (King Charles).

“Pippin” is Broadway’s hit musical known for extraordinary acrobatics, wondrous magical feats and soaring songs from the composer of “Wicked.” This elaborate new production was the winner of four 2013 Tony Awards including Best Musical Revival.

 “Pippin” opened 44 years ago on Broadway and ran for just under 2,000 performances. The hit musical features music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, book by Roger O. Hirson and is based on “The Story of Pippin, Son of Charlemagne”. The “Leading Player” narrates the story of Pippin as he embarks on his quest for self-discovery.

Housso Semon

Housso Semon is currently starring as the Leading Player in the 1st National Tour of “Pippin.” Her credits include Deloris in “Sister Act,” Aida in “Aida,” Charlayne in “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” Brenda in “Smokey Joe’s Café”, and Dynamite in “Hairspray.”

“I saw ‘Pippin’ on Broadway,” said Semon, during a phone interview Wednesday from a tour stop in Binghamton, New York.

“I also did a workshop ‘Making It on Broadway’ with Carly Hughes, who had played Leading Player on Broadway. She was teaching the class.

“When I saw the show on Broadway, I liked that it was a story anybody could relate to. And, I love that they included the circus elements.”

The well-written script uses the premise of a mysterious performance troupe, led by a Leading Player, to tell the story of Pippin, a young prince on his search for the meaning of life.

“I like how in charge she is,” said Semon, who graduated from AMDA (American Musical and Dramatic Academy). I love everything she’s about. She’s always striving to be better.

“She’s really strong and very passionate. She does have a darker side at times – but everybody has a darker side. It’s nice for her to be vulnerable.”

In the original Broadway production, Ben Vereen played the role of Leading Player. He brought the house down every night with his spirited performance and won the Tony Award for “Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical.”

Semon, who moved to America from the Ivory Coast when she was six, has been acting for a long time.

“When I was in middle school, my elementary school music teacher planned a trip to see ‘Aida’ on Broadway,” said Semon. “After seeing that show, I knew that theater was something I wanted to do,

“In high school, I was a member of the Running to Places theater group. I actually decided pretty late that I wanted to go to school for theater. Because of seeing ‘Aida,’ I decided to audition for AMDA.

“When I graduated from AMDA, I had the good fortune of doing a showcase at Town Hall called ‘Broadway’s Rising Star.’ From there, I auditioned for more shows. I worked on cruise lines and at a theater in Macau. Then, I came back to the city and started doing regional theater.”

Now, Semon has a coveted role – a role that is demanding from an acting standpoint and from a physical standpoint.

“The most challenging part is Fosse’s dancing aspect,” said Semon. “It’s also very physically demanding. The character has to have a lot of stamina.

“To keep up the energy, I take yoga classes. I drink lots of water. And, I get eight hours of sleep a night. I also do a vocal warm-up before every performance.

“This is a great show that really resonates with audiences. It’s a show about the human experience. It makes you laugh and it makes you cry. It is a roller coaster of emotions.”

Video link for “Pippin” – https://youtu.be/RStRcR9e2BY.

Tickets for the six-day run of “Pippin” range from $40-$85.

TORUK – The First Flight

A theatrical stage show of a different type will be presented from March 8-12 when Cirque du Soleil brings “TORUK – The First Flight” to the Wells Fargo Center. The show had its premiere in Montreal back in December.

 “TORUK – The First Flight” is a live immersive multimedia spectacle that brings to the stage the breathtaking world of James Cameron’s popular movie “Avatar.”

Through a fusion of cutting-edge visuals, puppetry, stagecraft and soaring cinematic score, Cirque du Soleil applies its unique signature style to Cameron’s imaginary world.

The show is an ode to the Na’vi’s symbiotic coexistence with nature and their belief in the basic interconnectedness of all living things.

Narrated by a “Na’vi Storyteller” and populated by unforgettable characters, the production is a mythical tale set thousands of years before the events depicted in the film “Avatar” — long before any humans ever set foot on Pandora.

When a natural catastrophe threatens to destroy the sacred Tree of Souls, Ralu and Entu, two Omaticaya boys on the brink of adulthood, fearlessly decide to take matters into their own hands.

Upon learning that Toruk can help them save the Tree of Souls, they set out, together with their newfound friend Tsyal.

Their quest takes them high up in the Floating Mountains to find the mighty red and orange predator that rules the Pandoran sky. Prophecy is fulfilled when a pure soul rises among the clans to ride Toruk for the first time and save the Na’vi from a terrible fate.

The cast includes human actors and larger-than-life puppets – the Pandoran animals.

The Pandoran animals will be brought to life through large-scale puppetry. Toruk itself is a “reverse string puppet” (handled from the base) while the Austrapede, Turtapede and Direhorse are “lived-in puppets” (someone is inside) and the Viperwolf is an “in-view puppet” (the lower half of the puppeteer is outside, becoming a part of the puppet, while his/her upper body is inside the puppet). Altogether, 16 puppets appear in the show.

One of the puppeteers is Kristi Hughes.

“This production was the first time that Cirque du Soleil decided to hire professional puppeteers to manipulate these large-scale animal objects,” said Hughes, during a recent phone interview from a tour stop in Monterey, Mexico.

“I was part of the creation in July 2013. I had worked with Cirque du Soleil before and it’s always been my goal to be a part of a Cirque du Soleil creation.”

There is a diverse array of puppets that Hughes and the other five puppeteers manipulate in various ways while performing in this show.

In one of the two-peopled direhorses, Hughes handles the front legs. As a viperwolf, she occupies the upper part of the five-feet-long puppet and manipulates the sides and lower half using a handlebar situated on the puppet’s head.

“When doing the viperwolves, our hands are in the body part so that we can move the wolves like a wild animal running,” said Hughes. “The biggest challenge with the viperwolves is trying to get used to how the wolves run in the film.”

Hughes studied at the renowned L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris. One of the school’s alumni is director and actor Toby Sedgwick, who choreographed the Tony Award-winning play “War Horse.”

“My school in Paris was a physical theater school,” said Hughes, who lives in Berlin, Germany. “Puppetry was a theme in the school and we all did a lot of masque theater.”

After graduation from the Lecoq school in 2002, Hughes worked with theater companies in Paris and Germany. She also worked with Cirque du Soleil on a small production on a cruise ship that sailed the Caribbean and the Baltic Sea.

And, she spent a year-and-a-half with a German-language production of “War Horse,” in which she was a puppeteer on the young version of Joey, the horse.

“I got back into puppetry in 2005,” said Hughes. “They did the first foreign language production of ‘War Horse.’ I was Joey, the smaller version of the horse. It was a great experience.

“‘War Horse’ was definitely an inspiration for Cirque du Soleil to work with puppeteers. The style is similar. As puppeteers, we have our own language — things that were unspoken about bringing puppets to life.

“In this show, it takes all six of us to manipulate Toruk. He weighs 250 pounds, has a 40-foot wingspan and is manipulated as an upside-down marionette. The show has six puppeteers and 16 puppets altogether.”

Another unique element to the production is that this is the first Cirque du Soleil show with a storytelling element. There is quite a bit of dialogue in it and the characters all speak in Na’vi. The storyteller helps translate the Na’vi.  It’s a different Cirque show because of the story and the language.

This is a Cirque du Soleil show so there still is a lot of physical action. It is separated from the other shows only in that it has a story element. The story takes precedence but a lot of us cast members were chosen for their movement-type qualities.”

Video link for “TORUK – The First Flight — https://youtu.be/E63VxxjkRYY.

Tickets for the shows at the Wells Fargo Center range in price from $38-$140.

Lowland Hum

On February 10, Lowland Hum released its latest album “Thin,” an album filled with beautiful songs with lilting melodies and warm lyrics.

Now, Lowland Hum, which is the husband-and-wife team of Lauren and Daniel Goans, is taking the album on tour – a tour that stops in the area on March 7 at MilkBoy Philly (1100 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, 215- 925-6455, www.milkboyphilly.com).

“We started working on ‘Thin’ in the summer of 2016,” said Lauren Goans, during a phone interview last week. “We’re based in Charlottesville, Virginia and right now we’re somewhere in the mountains on our way to Washington, D.C.

“Most of the songs were written in 2015 and 2016. We still travelled in 2016 but we took some time to devote to writing. We built up 17 demos that we decided between. We had more than that that we didn’t demo out. We had 17 songs and cut it to 11 for the album. It was kind of difficult. But, we could tell which ones really belonged.”

Lauren and Daniel met in North Carolina in 2009 when Daniel crashed a party at Lauren’s apartment. The next year, Daniel asked Lauren to collaborate on an album he was working on, by adding harmony vocals and designing the artwork for the project. Eventually, Lauren’s voice was added to half the album.

Lowland Hum formed officially in 2012, a few months after the two were married. In the years following the release of their critically acclaimed debut album, “Native Air” (2013), they have toured the country almost nonstop. In 2014, they followed up their debut with “Four Sisters,” a conceptual EP and video series. In 2015, they released their eponymous sophomore full-length album.

Lowland Hum’s new album has a definite link to the Brandywine Valley – a reference to local artist Andrew Wyeth in the song “Thin Places.”

According to Daniel Goans, “The song ‘Thin Places’ was written during a writing retreat on the eastern shore of Maryland at a property overlooking the Chesapeake Bay. When I wrote the central guitar part, it immediately conjured the imagery of tall grass fading in and out of focus on the edge of a body of water. Some of the lyrics recall strange instances in which something unexpected jolted me into hyper-awareness and gratitude.

“The song references Andrew Wyeth, whose work seems to share a color palette with the clearings surrounding the Chesapeake Bay. The arrangement features interplay between acoustic guitar, sung melody and sporadic piano parts. There is a call-and-response element to the way the parts interact with one another… the piano in particular became a character with a distinct personality in this song.”

The whole album has a mellow, pleasant feeling that draws listeners in.

“All the songs we recorded had a specific vibe,” said Lauren. “And, we limited them to things we could play live with what we have with the two of us – lead vocals, guitar, a little bit of keys and light percussion.

“We write together. It’s a pretty collaborative process. Daniel plays guitar, I play piano and we both sing. A big part of our writing process is harmony writing.

“When it comes to recording, we have our own equipment. When we made the album, we set up our equipment in a friend’s attic because our apartment is next to a train track and the trains are very noisy. Our plates rattle every day.

“When we were making ‘Thin,’ one of us would engineer while the other would play. It was done track-by-track. We tried to limit the recordings to what we could do live. We’ve had several singles off the album – ‘Thin Places,’ ‘Folded Flowers,’ and ‘Palm Lines.’

“In our live show, we’re playing mostly songs from the new album – all but three. And, we throw in a couple older songs.”

Video link for Lowland Hum – https://youtu.be/n-qnipkKH9w.

The show at MilkBoy Philly, which has Like Crazy as the opening act, will start at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10.

MilkBoy Philly will host a show on March 8 featuring a singer-songwriter with a completely different background.

The Alex Dezen Band

Alex Dezen, who is headlining the show, is now a solo artist after many years as the guitarist and lead singer of the Brooklyn-based band The Damnwells. He now is touring in support of his new album “Alex Dezen II.”

“We have six people in my band now – two backup vocalists, guitar, bass, drums and I play rhythm guitar and sing,” said Dezen, during a phone interview last week from Orlando, Florida.

“We’ve been in rehearsal here in Orlando for the last week and just did a soft opening. I’ve known some of these musicians for a while. They’re all members of Mike Dunn’s band, which is opening for me. Mike was a member of The Damnwells for a while. So, we decided to share a band on this tour.”

Now, The Damnwells are history. All of its members have gone their own ways.

“I had been playing with The Damnwells for 16 years,” said Dezen, who is also a multi-platinum-selling songwriter who has penned songs for Justin Bieber, The Veronicas and Cody Simpson . “I had never really made a record. I had many years of material that came bubbling up to the surface.

“I had been making music for The Damnwells for a long, long time. Now, I’m exploring things I didn’t get a chance to do. Now, there is no rule. It’s definitely different from The Damnwells.

“The Damnwells have had ups-and-downs with regard to fan engagement. It’s been a while since that band was at its peak. The original guitarist and drummer –David Chernis and Steven Terry — left in 2007. It was just me and Ted (bassist Ted Hudson) from 2007-2015.

“The original band got back together in 2015. It felt like family. We recorded anpther album and toured and then that was it. It felt good tri finish with all of us back at the helm. I’m very proud of the stuff I wrote with The Damnwells.”

Dezen embarked on his solo career in 2014.

A series of 4 solo EPs, known as “The Bedhead EPs,” were released throughout 2014. The first one, titled “1/4” released in January 2014. The second “2/4” came out three months later and was followed by “3/4” in July and “4/4” in December.

In 2015, Dezen collaborated with the American dance company Pilobolus, composing the music for the dance piece “Wednesday Morning, 11:45” (2015), which premiered at The American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina in June 2015.

On November 3, 2015, Dezen announced a PledgeMusic project of songs written in early 2015 to be released as his first solo album. The project reached its crowdfunding goal in one week.

The self-titled album was released by Rock Ridge Music on February 12, 2016, followed by a nine-hour, free internet concert where Dezen performed acoustic versions of every song he has ever released over his band and solo career.

“I released my first solo album ‘Alex Dezen’ early last year,” said Dezen. “This one is my second one and it came out a month ago. That’s the one I’m touring. By the time the first album came out, the second one was already done.

“On this tour, the focus will be on the second one. The set is 50/50 solo material and Damnwells’ songs. I’d like to be playing some songs from the third but I have 16 years of Damnwells and two solo albums out so that dictates where the focus should be this time out.”

Video link for Alex Dezen –https://youtu.be/7u5ippGVRPY.

The show at MilkBoy Philly, which has Mike Dunn and Chris Gennett as openers, will start at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10.

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