Goodspeed Musicals, East Haddam CT
Repeatedly, this summer, the theater productions have tended to outstrip their material. Again and again, the summer shows have been blessed with top performers, directors and designers—but, alas, disappointingly thin stories and themes.
The current show at Goodspeed is a case in point. “Pippin” might well be renamed “Much Ado About Nothing,” if that title had not already been appropriated by another writer.
“Pippin” (with a book by Roger Hirson) is supposedly the story of Charlemagne’s son, a young man who goes forth to find purpose in life. Along the way he plays the roles of warrior, king, reformer, family man—while pursuing this ever-elusive goal. The theme is weighty—in fact pretentious--but is never explored in depth.
Moreover, there is no attempt to anchor the story to the Charlemagne era. And though the real Charlemagne had one son (and in fact two) named Pepin, it is believed, the show’s historic accuracy begins and ends at that point. “Pippin” is little concerned with a time frame, going blithely from then to now to no time in particular. It could as easily have been set in modern times, with the young hero named Kevin or Tom rather than Pippin.
So much for the non-story and the non-era. But Goodspeed’s production has much to recommend it. It’s a dazzling display of pyrotechnics or the like, with shapely showgirls twirling high above the stage, clowns disappearing into magic boxes, jugglers juggling, acrobats vaulting across the stage. It is a company of multi-talented performers who can bring a circus to life but at the same time work their way through a Bob Fosse dance routine, belt out the songs, and create characters as required.
Does credit go to Fosse or Mark Dendy, the current choreographer? Hard to say, but the combined results are joyous, as this high-energy troupe offers company numbers non-stop. It is only in the second act, when Pippin experiences domestic bliss, that the show lags.
Other plus factors are the featured players. Shannon Lewis plays Fastrada, the evil stepmother, with just the right mix of seductiveness, sleaze, and a strong voice, and Mickey Dolenz brings wit and stature to his role as Charlemagne. Barbara Marineau is a charmer as Pippin’s loving grandma, and Andre Ward is strong as the ringleader/narrator, though one would have liked a more Mephistophelian thrust to his performance. In the title role, Joshua Park has youthful appeal, though a stronger voice and more commanding stage presence would have enhanced his key role. And hurrah, hurrah for the design team, with its smashing set by Beowulf Boritt, costumes by Liz Prince, and lighting by Kevin Adams.
On the whole, “Pippin” works well, despite the story’s limitations. Director Barre has chosen to turn this silly musical into a razzle-dazzle circus, keeping a firm hand on the proceedings and delighting audiences, judging by the enthusiastic response. After all, who needs gritty reality or historic accuracy when the alternative is a lively summer show and a view of the Connecticut River?
-- Irene Backalenick
Aug. 14, 2006