I'm crazy about PigPen and soon you will be too. They're a great rock band that also happens to put on delightful theatrical shows. Or they're a great theatrical troupe that also happens to release terrific albums. Take your pick.
The guys met at Carnegie Mellon and formed their troupe in 2007. Since then, they've been crafting unique and wonderful shows built around folk tales, puppetry of all sorts, great songs and their skill as actors. They play with imagination and flair to create an entire world on stage with the simplest of tools, like a mop head, a milk jug and a bolt of blue cloth. The guys usually play multiple roles in every show, trade off lead vocals and generally have a blast.
Seven years on and they're just hitting their stride. Their debut album Bremen was one of the best of 2012. And they've toured the country both as a rock band and with their show The Old Man and The Old Moon. I reviewed it when the show debuted here and it was a delight to see it again because it revealed another skill of this group: they know how to get better. It's very hard to have perspective with your own work, especially after you've shared it with the world.
But PigPen has edited and tweaked and simply grown more confident in their skills. And now this newly tightened and trimmed show is yare, as only the best sailing vessels you've grown comfortable with can be. They've eliminated the intermission, focused the storytelling in ways large and small and made a very good show even better. If you saw it before, you'll want to see it again. If you haven't, now's the time.
Here's a video of the song "Bremen," which is a highlight of the show and the title track on their debut CD. It's not footage from the show, but the playful puppetry on display gives an idea of their sensibility and the visual look of the show.
The story is an original folk tale, in this case one that explains why the moon waxes and wanes. Turns out it didn't always do so, thanks to an old man who lived on a cliff near the moon. Every day the moon leaked a bit of liquid light, the old man caught it in a bucket and topped off the celestial orb every night so its brightness would never dim. But the old man's wife grew bored with their unchanging routine and his unwillingness to head to town or spend even a day away from his charge. So she took off in a boat, he took off after her and there hangs a tale.
It begins simply with the men on stage playing instruments, jamming casually with one another and then slowly slipping into a full-bodied number as a little boy near me wondered, "Has it started?" Yes it has. The story is full of pirates, sea creatures, mythical cities on the horizon, fabled sailors, simple bravery (which is never that simple), lies that help, truth that hurts, balloonists and much more. It's rousing, silly, sweet and bursting with good songs, ranging from folk ballads to one awesome Tom Waits-like number that feels like an electric jolt to the evening.
I haven't singled out any of the PigPen members, because they truly feel like such an ensemble. Oh sure, you'll have your favorites. But as each member dives into a new role, as three or four of them playfully jump together and declare they're a ship! and you think, yes of course, a ship! and they move little cut-out characters behind a lit-up scrim to illustrate a character walking on a journey, you'll laugh with each and every one of them at some point. And as they raise their voices in song, you'll think this or that fellow has an especially lovely voice but always, always they sound better, stronger and more special when their voices join in unison.
Prior to this production, I'd seen them in funky venues in Brooklyn or Off Broadway settings. Now here they are at the New Victory Theater, a jewel box of a house that is devoted to fare for family audiences. As anyone who's had the pleasure to see a show at New Victory, it's a great space and their best shows would appeal to anyone. That's certainly true of this show, which runs through October 13.
But just because kids can have fun, don't confuse this with a children's show that adults can enjoy too. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) You might say the same of the Tony-winning show Peter and the Starcatcher, which had a similarly playful tone. The Old Man and the Old Moon makes perfect sense here, but it would also fit right in at the high art stages of the Brooklyn Academy of Music or with an open run on Broadway. The only thing that doesn't make sense is missing these talented performers in action.
THEATER OF 2014
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical ***
Rodney King ***
Hard Times ** 1/2
Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead **
I Could Say More *
The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner **
Outside Mullingar ***
A Man's A Man * 1/2
The Tribute Artist ** 1/2
Prince Igor at the Met **
The Bridges Of Madison County ** 1/2
Kung Fu (at Signature) **
Stage Kiss ***
Satchmo At The Waldorf ***
Antony and Cleopatra at the Public **
All The Way ** 1/2
The Open House (Will Eno at Signature) ** 1/2
Wozzeck (at Met w Deborah Voigt and Thomas Hampson and Simon O'Neill)
Hand To God ***
Tales From Red Vienna **
Appropriate (at Signature) *
Rocky * 1/2
Mothers And Sons **
Les Miserables *** 1/2
Breathing Time * 1/2
Cirque Du Soleil's Amaluna * 1/2
Heathers The Musical * 1/2
Red Velvet, at St. Ann's Warehouse ***
Broadway By The Year 1940-1964 *** 1/2
A Second Chance **
Guys And Dolls *** 1/2
If/Then * 1/2
The Threepenny Opera * 1/2
A Raisin In The Sun *** 1/2
The Heir Apparent *** 1/2
The Realistic Joneses ***
Lady Day At Emerson's Bar & Grill ***
The Library **
South Pacific ** 1/2
Bullets Over Broadway **
Of Mice And Men **
The World Is Round ***
Your Mother's Copy Of The Kama Sutra **
Hedwig and the Angry Inch ***
The Cripple Of Inishmaan ***
The Great Immensity * 1/2
Casa Valentina ** 1/2
Act One **
Inventing Mary Martin **
An Octoroon *** 1/2
Forbidden Broadway Comes Out Swinging ***
Here Lies Love *** 1/2
6th Annual August Wilson Monologue Competition
Sea Marks * 1/2
A Time-Traveler's Trip To Niagara * 1/2
Selected Shorts: Neil Gaiman ***
Too Much Sun * 1/2
Broadway By The Year 1965-1989 ***
In The Park **
The Essential Straight & Narrow ** 1/2
Much Ado About Nothing ***
When We Were Young And Unafraid
Savion Glover's Om **
Broadway By The Year 1990-2014 ***
The Lion ***
Holler If Ya Hear Me * 1/2
The Ambassador Revue ** 1/2
Dubliners: A Quartet ***
The National High School Musical Theater Awards *** 1/2
Wayra -- Fuerza Bruta * 1/2
Strictly Dishonorable *** 1/2 out of ****
Between Riverside And Crazy ***
The Wayside Motor Inn ***
Mighty Real ***
This Is Our Youth ***
Rock Bottom * 1/2
Almost Home * 1/2
Rococo Rouge **
Love Letters ** 1/2
The Money Shot ** 1/2
The Old Man and the Old Moon *** 1/2
Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the founder and CEO of the forthcoming website BookFilter, a book lover's best friend. It's a website that lets you browse for books online the way you do in a physical bookstore, provides comprehensive info on new releases every week in every category and offers passionate personal recommendations every step of the way. It's like a fall book preview or holiday gift guide -- but every week in every category. He's also the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day and features top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It's available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website and his daily blog. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes.
Note: Michael Giltz is provided with free tickets to shows with the understanding that he will be writing a review. All productions are in New York City unless otherwise indicated.