Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Review of "Pippin"

The strength of the musical Pippin is the score by Stephen Schwartz.  He has infused the show with a 1970’s pop music sensibility.  The songs are enchanting, playful, and full of feeling.

The production at the Summer Theatre of New Caanan (STONC), playing through July 28th, is a mostly joyous spectacle.  The limitations have more to do with the book of the show by Roger O. Hirson, which has a troupe of actors presenting a play within a play concept.  The scenes within the musical are not always well-defined and can be somewhat overwhelmed by the histrionics and choreographed movements of the actors.

 STONC’s staging is more in line with the original 1972 Broadway show as opposed to the 2013 revival that was full of acrobatics and Cirque du Soleil elements.  However, there is a feistiness and festive atmosphere to the musical as it is presented under a large tent in a mirthful, sprightly theater-in-the-round setting.

The show revolves around a young man, Pippin, son of Charlemagne, Emperor during the Early Middle Ages.  While the musical centers on these real-life historical figures, the plot is not based on actual fact.   

A character known as The Leading Player narrates and directs the group of performers telling the audience they have “Magic To Do” in their telling of this tale.  Pippin has just graduated from University and returns to the royal household full of confusion and doubt as he searches for his purpose in life.  In quick succession he samples gainful employment, exercises duty and honor to his father, experiments with sexual promiscuity, and attempts to settle down with Catherine, a widow, and her son on her country homestead.  Still not satisfied with where his life is leading him Pippin, at the end of the show, is goaded by The Leading Player and the other actors to come to terms with his lack of direction by committing one final act.  Rebelling, Pippin has an epiphany about his life’s purpose as he realizes his life with Catherine was where he was most content.  Furious, The Leading Player cancels the performance having the actors strip the stage of sets and lights and commands the band to stop playing.  As the space becomes bare the young Theo remains with The Leading Player beckoning him to restart the search for purpose now shunned by Pippin.

While the musical can appear disjointed, with wildly masked and costumed performers cavorting around the performance area, the central theme of an individual seeking fulfillment and purpose in life is universal.  In today’s world of Millennials searching for their place in the world, moving about frequently, and not being easily satisfied Pippin can appear to be a shining beacon of hope, but also caution.

The cast is satisfying with Zach Schanne’s portrayal of the title character nimbly combining wonder and determination.  Frank Mastrone, a seasoned professional, gives Charlemagne a weathered deportment as he rules his lands, keeps his young wife happy, and tends to the whims and follies of his son.  The Leading Player should have a commanding presence, becoming the center of the audience’s attention when onstage, but Melissa Victor is less a compelling focal point of the show than a benevolent guide to the actions of the acting troupe.  Ella Raymont’s Catherine is the strongest performer in the production.  At first appearing merrily blissful she convincingly transforms into a serious and disquieted figure at the show’s conclusion.

Directors Allegra and Christian Libonati keep the momentum of the show constantly on the move, helped by the theater-in-the-round setting and Doug Shankman’s bustling and animated choreography.  Sometimes the actors become mired in cryptic body movements but, for the most part, their actions on stage are alluring and captivating.

Brad Caleb Lee’s minimal sets under the circus-like tent structure is sublime.  Orli Nativ’s costume designs are whimsical, outlandish, and sometimes naughty.

Pippin, playing at the Summer Theatre of New Caanan through July 28th.

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