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November 22, 2010

Weekend in review: From 'Zippy the Pinhead' to the BSO

After taking Friday night off to be just a regular member of an audience for a change (I joined the sold-out crowd for Bill Maher's often wickedly funny socio/political analysis at the Hippodrome), I checked out two decidedly different musical experiences over the weekend. On Saturday, I caught the penultimate performance of "Zippy the Pinhead: The Musical" at the Theatre Project; the next afternoon, a block away at the Meyerhoff, I heard the Baltimore Symphony perform an absorbing program of Ravel, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. From the "Zippy"-diculous to the sublime.

As for the slender new musical, which has a score by Baltimore-based composer Lorraine Whittlesey and a book she co-wrote with the creator of the Zippy comic strip, Bill Griffith, I imagine it would appeal more to longtime fans of the source material. Except for "Doonesbury," my comic-reading stopped quite a while ago, and I confess that I never did much warm to "Zippy" back in the day. 

That said, I can appreciate the strip's blend of the goofy, the ironic, the droll and the surreal, and those elements certainly do exist in the musical. Not, alas, in sufficient quantities to grab much interest, even with a very short running time -- an hour, including intermission. Not really much humor, either, although a few Baltimore references and the video projections throughout were fun.  

A more professional performance level would no doubt have helped sell the show; the singing, in particular, left a lot to be desired.

The best efforts came from

Ryan Patrick Brown in the title role. He seemed perfectly at home in Zippy's off-kilter, donut- and condiment-obsessed world.

Speaking of condiments, Whittlesey's song about those -- set to the model-major-general patter number from Gilbert and Sullivan's "Pirates of Penzance" -- was a highlight of the score. The rest of the songs utilized primarily '50s and '60s rock idioms to apt effect. Jared Denhard's expert arrangements, which included unexpected colors from the ukulele, gave all the songs a lift, as did his well-matched colleagues in the band.

Sunday afternoon's BSO concert was richly satisfying. Gunther Herbig, one of the elder statesmen of the podium, demonstrated his customary depth of expression and sensitivity to detail.

Herbig had the orchestra producing the refined, transparent colors of Ravel's "Mother Goose" Suite with an enveloping glow, and he offered smooth support for soloist Tianwa Yang in Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1. Yang did not produce an especially distinctive tone or reveal the most individualistic phrasing, but she met the technical challenges effortlessly in the scherzo and captured the ethereal lyricism of the outer movements effectively. 

The orchestra, which did subtle work in the concerto, moved into high gear for Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10, one of the most affecting works of 20th century orchestral music. Herbig, conducting from memory, seemed deeply connected to the composer's world of shadows, fears and unexpected relief; each movement was shaped with telling nuance.

The BSO always turns in strong performances when working with Herbig, and this concert was no exception. The musicians demonstrated as much technical discipline as searing emotional power, reaching the sort of soulful state that reminded me of the Temirkanov era here.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:46 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens


I too had the misfortune of attending Zippy the Pinhead last month as an audience member. I can say as a former theatre critic that you are giving this show entirely too much credit where NONE is due.

The story was lackluster, the acing non-existan and the ill-performed staging of lazily written songs (I agree that Condiments was an okay song, Dingsburg was the closest thing the show had to a "highlight") made the entire hour excrutiating.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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