Thursday, July 14, 2022

Review of "Pippin" - Playhouse on Park


The Playhouse on Park production of the Stephen Schwartz musical, Pippin is a captivating gem.  Director/Choreographer Darlene Zoller has assembled a first-rate cast and creative team that delivers on all aspects of the production.

The Playhouse version harks back to the original 1972 Broadway show as opposed to the 2010 Broadway revival.  The latter production added Cirque du Soleil elements to the musical such as jugglers and acrobats, which I found distracting.  Here, the focus is on the characters and their stories.  Fans of the original cast recording will rejoice as the original orchestrations are employed throughout the score.

Pippin is crafted as a play within a play.  Our guide is the Leading Player who narrates the proceedings and interacts now and then with the actors and action on stage.  Both Ben Vereen, in the original Broadway production and Patina Miller in the revival, portrayed this character as an impish jester. Here, Thao Nguyen is a mischievous and seductive provocateur with a hint of menace.   

The broad outline of the show is of a young man coming of age and trying to find his place in the world during the time of Charlemange and the Holy Roman Empire.  The character of Pippin, the eldest son of the king,  attempts many pathways to fulfillment, primarily soldiering, to no avail.  While on his quest for self-actualization and happiness, he navigates through an array of family members, both helpful and not.  There is his war-mongering younger brother Lewis, his standoffish father, conspiring stepmother Fasttrada, and sagely grandmother, Berthe.

Through happenstance, Pippin begins a relationship with Catherine, a widow, with a large estate.  Content at first, he eventually leaves, thinking there is more to life than domesticity and routine.  In the end, however, as the Leading Player and cast members urge Pippin for a Final Step, he comes to the realization that, while not his dream, residing with Catherine and her son Theo would be a satisfying life.

Pippin’s pursuit of a quality and fulfilling existence should resonate with today’s audiences as so many people, especially those under 35, seem to be looking for something more with their  lives, their own “Corner of the Sky.”  While settling down, after an assortment of dalliances, is not everyone’s goal, the message of the musical is it’s okay to just be happy. 

The book of the show is somewhat disjointed and can lag at certain points.  This, however, affords a Director/Choreographer with a clear, well-orchestrated vision a great deal of latitude in shaping the show.  Darlene Zoller, serving both roles, has more than answered the challenge.  Known primarily for her choreography over the years, Ms Zoller has infused the show with a style and panache that is invigorating and highly entertaining.  She seamlessly blends all the musical’s elements into a cohesive whole.  Her dance numbers burst with creativity, energy and confidence.  Ms. Zoller even manages to bring a stylistic verve to the scenes of Pippin’s sexual exploits.

The music and lyrics  by Stephen Schwartz, his first Broadway score, are full of hope and glory.  The compositions are some of the most cherished and recognizable in theater history.  The songs are tuneful and full of richness and variety.  They are brought to their vibrant best by Music Director Colin Britt and his tightly grouped pit band.  The songs include such enchanting ballads as “Corner of the Sky” and “Love Song;” the comedic treasure “No Time at All;” and the classic opening number “Magic To Do.”

The entire cast is first-rate, with absolutely gorgeous singing voices that beautifully resonate throughout the theater.  They are lled by Thao Nguyen as the Leading Player and Shannon Cheong as Pippin.  Mr. Nguyen commands the stage as he dances, prances and prowls about the performing space, barking commands and providing discerning advice.  The twinkle in his eyes can be deceptively inviting and his mannerisms playful.  But he also infuses his character with a degree of danger that belies the merrymaking more associated with the character.

Shannon Cheong’s Pippin is boyishly handsome and charismatic. His portrayal of the young man has the requisite lack of direction and purpose inherent in the role.  Occasionally, his depiction veers towards a childish immaturity, but these intermittent moments do not undercut a noteworthy Playhouse on Park debut.

Each of the featured performers make the most of their moment in the spotlight.  Brad Weatheford, finely chiseled and self-gloriously vain, brings just the right mixture of arrogance and humorous pomposity to the role of  Pippin’s younger brother Lewis.  Kate Wesler’s Fastrada, Pippin’s scheming stepmother, is poised and graceful.  She is an exquisite and very flexible dancer.  This is aptly demonstrated by her pairing with Mr. Weatherford during her solo of “Spread a Little Sunshine.”  SuEllen Estey’s character Berthe, grandmother to Pippin, spends less time center stage than the character of King George in Hamilton, but her rendition of the sing along classic “No Time at All,” is just as memorable.  The seasoned professional knows how to work the audience in this crowd-pleasing favorite.  Juliana Lamia is entrancing as the fair Catherine.  Gene Choquette’s King Charlemagne is full of bluster and grandiosity, but also a weariness and melancholy, which provides for a more fully realized character

The Scenic Design by Johann Fitzpatrick is deceptively simple with a center stage elevated platform surrounded by a slightly raised wall.  The set artfully provides the suggestion of a walled castle.  Jackson Funke’s Lighting Design adroitly augments notable moments in the production through the use of colored spots, silhouettes, and strobe effects. Vilinda McGregor’s Costume Designs are suitably ragtag, racey, and period appropriate.

Pippin, an uproariously entering production, playing at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford through August 21.  Not to be missed.

Suggested for ages 13 and up.  Performances are Friday at 8:00pm, Saturday at 2:00pm and 8:00pm, Sunday at 2:00pm, Tuesday at 2:00pm, Wednesday at 7:30pm and Thursday at 7:30pm.  Tickets are from $37.50 - $50.00 and can be purchased on the Playhouse website -

Vaccination card checks and masks are not required. However, masks are strongly encouraged.

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