“Pippin” at Playhouse on Park Remains A Typical ‘70s Story of Adolescent Angst

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By Karen Isaacs

Pippin is a musical loved by many who are drawn to this story of a young man coming to grips with the realities of life and the world.

The Stephen Schwartz (and Roger O. Hirson) musical reflects all the trends of the early ‘70s – story theater, a troupe of players putting on the show, a narrator and soft rock music. It reflects the idealism and the simplicity of the Woodstock generation.

It tells the story of Pippin, the son of Charlemagne. Let’s be honest – don’t rely on this show to score high on any history test — the plot has practically no relationship to history.

The young prince is sure that he is “extraordinary” and therefore wants to find an extraordinary life. But like many young people – he doesn’t know what he wants nor does he always recognize reality. He tries warfare, religion, conspiring against his father and farming; he even tries love and romance. Each one proves to be routine and boring. He views ruling as simple until he discovers that each of his decrees has consequences he had not expected and has the opposite result of what he wanted.

The original show in 1972 was directed by Bob Fosse and brought Ben Vereen to stardom. It was Fosse’s concept as well as the TV commercial he produced that turned the show into a hit. The show had garnered mixed reviews.

But perhaps it is time for a totally rethought production.

In this production at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford which runs through Sunday, Aug. 22, director/choreographer Darlene Zoller has stuck with the general Fosse concept and Fosse-like moves. (Some have noted that the Fosse production, which I never saw, was darker than subsequent productions). While you may not see the classic Fosse isolation moves, you will see enough hip gyrations and pelvic thrusts to add sexuality to the production. It does at times seem at odds with the simplicity of the story of this naïve young man’s quest.

The scenic design by Johann Fitzpatrick has some oddities. Why are some of the musicians inside a glass room? Others are alongside them in the open. The stage is set up with a low barrier around it, and a two-tiered center square. The bench seems to provide a barrier between cast and audience, yet this is a show that almost cries out for direct audience/cast interaction.

The cast works hard and for the most part effectively. Most play both a character and a member of the troupe. Thao Ngyuen as the Leading Player (think of him as the MC) certainly has the energy and voice for the part. He may not draw us in as much as could be done, but his performance sets the tone. As Pippin, Shannon Cheong looks almost too young and acts almost too naïve. But his rendition of “My Corner of the Sky” is excellent and “Extraordinary” is also.

I would also single out Juliana Lamia as Catherine, Pippin’s love interest and Ryan Bryne as Theo, her son. Lamia mixes sweetness with some guile – she needs help around the farm. Her numbers including “There He Was” and “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man” were touching. Bryne captures the innocence of the child.

Yet, in many ways, this is a stripped-down and drabber version of the show. It isn’t like a carnival or circus, the costumes don’t overwhelm you with color or glamour. At the finale, when the leading player removes the costumes and makeup from Pippin, Catherine and Theo – removing the “magic” of the theater – the difference isn’t that startling.

The best parts of the show are the ensemble numbers.

While some find great meaning and relevance in this show, I have always felt it was overly simplistic and obvious. For depends on the magic of stagecraft to give it any interest.

Those are fans of the show, will find this production enjoyable. But realize that it won’t cover up some inherent flaws.

For tickets visit PlayhouseonPark.org.

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