Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
Also see Wally's review of Fool for Love
What to make of Pippin the musical? When it opened in 1972, it was not your typical Broadway musical, but perhaps it was typical of its time. It was an era of rebellion, of shocking the bourgeoisie, of breaking rules because they needed to be broken or just for the sake of breaking rules. Hair had made it to Broadway in 1968. Oh! Calcutta! opened in 1969. It was a time of "anything goes" in the theater world.
Pippin went for what academics call a meta-theatrical or Brechtian or post-modern style. That is, it constantly reminds us that we're in a theater watching performers, that it's an artificial concoction. Thorton Wilder pulled it off in Our Town, but most of the time it detracts more than adds to a play. Pippin has a narrator, the Leading Player, who talks directly to the audience, sets up the scenes, and frequently interrupts the action, sometimes with script in hand. Other characters talk to the audience too. To what purpose?
The show was created by two people I think are among the most overrated personages in late 20th century musical theater, Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics) and Bob Fosse (director and choreographor, and contributor to the book), plus bookwriter Roger O. Hirson, who is pretty much known just for this show. The very successful Schwartz (Wicked) has written a lot of songs, but few of them are memorable. A couple of his better ones are in this show, but there's a lot of filler material too. (To be fair, it's in about the same ratio of good to mediocre songs as in most musicals of recent times, not counting the jukebox shows.)
I've never understood the reverence that people have for Bob Fosse. Sure, he has an instantly recognizable dance style, but too often it's bump and grind with jazz hands and bowler hats. It rarely reveals anything about the characters in the play. It's always about Bob Fosse. I will admit, however, that the slithery Fosse moves of the Leading Player do reflect the serpent-like tempter character. The choreographers of this production, Courtney and Louise Giannini, have retained the Fosse style, and a few times I found it not just repetitive but off-putting as well.
However, the story of Pippin has universal appeal. It's about a young person on a quest for fulfillment. Who hasn't been on a similar search, who hasn't felt unfulfilled at certain times in life? As the son of Charlemagne, Pippin is the heir to the throne, but he renounces his privileged position to go out into the world looking for something more. He tries education, war, sex, kingship, art, and religion, but doesn't find fulfillment in any of these. Eventually he meets a young widow and her son and settles down with them on their farm. Like Candide, maybe the best we can do is cultivate our garden. Or, like the wise Odysseus in Plato's Republic who, when asked what kind of life he would like to be reincarnated into, says that he would not want to be a king again but would choose the life of a common ordinary man.
Schwartz and Fosse and Hirson decided to trick this material up as a vaudeville, sometimes bordering on burlesque. A recent Broadway revival added circus elements to make it even more eye-popping, maybe because the underlying material wears thin after a while. The original ending was apparently a downer. A short addendum featuring the young son was created in 1998, and it's a beautiful way to end the show. It got to me emotionally, the only thing that did.
But see the show for the performances. You should not miss Trey Caperton as Pippin or Hasani Olujimi as the Leading Player or Oliver Groves as Theo the little boy. They're as good as anybody you could see anywhere. Caperton, still in high school, is completely at home on the stage; he sings and acts wonderfully and looks good in a fishnet tank top. It's always fun to see Olujimi in any show, and here he has a role that fits him like a glove. Oliver Groves doesn't have a big part, but he's so good and he brings the show to a close masterfully.
Everyone else does good work. Samantha Blauwkamp is a vivacious grandmother and she pulls off one of the best songs in the show. Lisa Fenstermacher and Gene Corbin both are fine performers but are saddled here with less than fine material. Mackenzie Donham-Stradling stepped into the role of the young widow for an ailing Kir Kipness at the performance I attended, and she was excellent. The ensemble members all work really hard and deserve applause.
Darby Fegan leads the orchestra of twelve, which sounded very good despite the problems with the sound system. The set by Dahl Delu was up to his usual high standard. Costumes by LaRue Schultz and John Deering and lighting by Daniel Chapman are good, too. The whole shebang is ably directed by Gary Bearly and stage managed by Vicki Singer, both of whom deserve a lot of credit for putting together a complicated production.
Pippin, through March 31, 2019, for Landmark Musicals at the Rodey Theatre, University of New Mexico Center for the Arts, Central Avenue, Albuquerque NM. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2:00. Tickets are $22 to $26. Info at landmarkmusicals.org.