October 17, 2011
Few shows are trickier to keep on the tracks than "Pippin," one of the mercifully limited number of Broadway musicals set in the eighth century. "Pippin," which dates back to 1972, is a truly singular combo of a coming-of-age story of a hippie-ish young royal eager to find his corner of the sky and a flashy, macabre romp led by a band of devilish ensemble players whose genesis, collective serpentine character and zesty way of moving owes much to founding choreographerBob Fosse.
Yet there amid the wars, the patricide, the debaucheries, the life lessons, sits one of the most catchy, beautiful and, well, innocent scores ever penned for the theater. Though Stephen Schwartz (who knows how to write, transformatively, to theme) wrote a varied and unusual suite of songs, many of the strikingly sweet ditties from "Pippin" have enjoyed a life well beyond this eclectic show: "Corner of the Sky," "Magic to Do," Kind of Woman," "Right Track," "Morning Glow." You'll likely know some or all.
There are at least two separate current revivals of "Pippin" with Broadway ambitions — one of which, intriguingly, plans to use circus as one its stylistic roots. It's certainly a piece waiting for a powerful new take. As with "Godspell" (a revival is currently in Broadway previews), "Pippin," which has a book by Roger O. Hirson, is a musical very dependent on a director's conceit. It's also still a much-loved title that brings folks into a theater: BoHo Theatre's rented space at Theatre Wit was packed at Friday night's final preview.
Peter Marston Sullivan's BoHo conceit is certainly in one's proverbial face but comes with a variety of problems, not the least of which is a twin lack of subtlety and truth. Sullivan imagines the Leading Player and his motley crew as sexualized devils of the high-camp variety, figuratively and literally sticking out their tongues to coax young Pippin into their orgy. That's fine, to a point. But right from the moment when Travis Porchia — a showman of great potential, if he'd pay less attention to flash and more attention to storytelling — first vamps his way through "Join Us, Leave Your Fields to Flower," this crowd has nowhere to go. They use up everything in the first five minutes and, thereafter, they are stuck on replay. And when you go this stylized, shimmery route, the other problem that crops up is that the show has no credible antagonists.
In this telling, characters like Charlemagne and Fastrada telegraph their malevolent intents and do not, it seems, believe the truth of their own bad advice. Fastrada's "Spread a Little Sunshine" is certainly ironic, but if you don't believe that she believes it, the song lacks tension. Heck, it lacks a real point.
Sullivan, and his very capable choreographer Brenda Didier (along with all the designers), clearly wanted an edgy show and they have some talents (including Jenny Lamb and Maggie Portman) in the ensemble. But they forget that even devils can be honest — and they dilute the danger, rather than increase it.
Dana Tretta, a powerful and honest actress, almost single-handedly rescues this far-from-subtle show in the second act, once she shows up as Catherine, Pippin's widowed love interest, and things settle down. Tretta has never sounded better. But rather than just getting to sing the gorgeous "Kind of Woman," she is saddled with a cutesy, campy little dance that, infuriatingly, undermines the truth of what she is singing, even though this character surely believes it right down to her toes.
As for the young titular fellow himself, Shaun Nathan Baer makes for a handsome, inquisitive kind of performance that, while vocally all over the map, is at least, as the famous "Schwartz" lyric goes, on the right track.
When: Through Nov. 13
Where: Theatre Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 mins.
Tickets: $22-$28 at 773-975-8150 or bohotheatre.com
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