Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2007
Mere hours before leaving to see the Mill City production of “Pippin” I wrote the following:
“The point of community theatre is not present slick professional perfection, but to give average men and women a chance to experience the joy of performing great theatre and music, and allowing their friends and neighbors the chance to join them in the fun by attending the performances and encouraging them with their applause.”
That was in reference to the Town Players’ production of The Mikado which is their 85th anniversary production. Mill City has yet to celebrate its 5th anniversary, but in a way this is a coming-of-age production for them. This is their first “grown-up” musical in a real theatre with a set and theatrical lighting, and they have done a very fine job with it.
Pippin is not an easy show to stage, nor is it easy to categorize and describe. The best place to start is to tell you that the music and lyrics were written in 1972 by Stephen Schwartz, who was then just 24 and a theatrical wunderkind. His previous credits included the phenomenal Godspell and collaborating with Leonard Bernstein on the libretto for his Mass. At one point in the 1970’s Schwartz had three musicals – Godspell, Pippin, and The Magic Show – running simultaneously on Broadway. Today his musical Wicked is in the fourth year of its Broadway run.
So you will not be surprised when I tell you that Pippin is about a young man, just out of college, and his search for identity and fulfillment. Nominally, this young man is Pippin (770-813 CE), son of Charlemagne (742/747-814 CE). In actuality he is an Everyman, and the Dark Ages setting merely allows for gentle jabs at Vietnam era American politics, which, sadly, are being mirrored in today’s headlines.
“Pippin” has a book by Roger O. Hirson, who wrote only one other Broadway musical, the 1967 “Walking Happy,” which has faded into obscurity. The plot of Pippin is not and never was the point, Voltaire told this story a hundred times better in Candide, it was merely a vehicle for Schwartz’s music and lyrics. The original Broadway production starred Ben Vereen, who had just won a Tony as Judas in Jesus Christ, Superstar, as the Leading Player, John Rubenstein as Pippin, Irene Ryan (Granny on The Beverley Hillbillies) as Berthe, and Jill Clayburgh as Catherine.
The show was choreographed by Bob Fosse, and was the first Broadway show ever to advertise on television, with a brief, evocative dance number featuring Ben Vereen, the then unknown Ann Reinking, and another chorus girl. I remember it vividly.
So you can understand why Pippin would be an appealing show for Mill City Productions, a community theatre company founded by young people just out of college searching for identity and fulfillment; and why reproducing the energy and feel of Fosse choreography would be an intriguing challenge for such a group.
Mill City’s previous forays into musical comedy have been You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and Honk! two family-friendly shows that lend themselves to low-budget gee-whiz-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show-in-the-old-barn-type productions. Pippin is neither easily staged nor family-friendly. That is not to say that it is a raunchy degenerate mess, after all of Pippin’s many trials and errors he settles on quiet domestic life with an attractive young widow and her son, but it does not feature any dancing dogs or frogs either. (There is a duck, but he doesn’t dance.) I would rate Pippin a PG-13.
Pippin was an obvious choice for Mill City also because they have, in Joshua Sprague, the perfect leading man. It was really a joy to hear Sprague sing Corner of the Sky, Morning Glow, and Extraordinary. Sprague is not just a good community theatre Pippin, he would be a contender for the role if, say, Barrington Stage, decided to present the show. He is just the right age, has a splendid voice, and has that tousled hair thing going on. Just fabulous.
It’s not easy being Ben Vereen, even Ben Vereen has a hard time of it these days, and Mill City has wisely gone in a completely different direction, casting a woman in the role of the Leading Player. The theatrical framing device is a blatant rip-off of the 1966 Kander & Ebb hit Cabaret, the Academy Award-winning film version of which, choreographed by Fosse, opened the same year as Pippin, and is rather annoying in that respect. Here comes Joel Grey, oops, no, it’s Ben Vereen, with a bevy of hip-swiveling, raccoon-eyed, androgynous chorus girls and boys. Ho hum. Been there, seen that. And before Pippin concluded its five-year Broadway run Fosse had a new bevy over at the 42nd Street Theatre in another Kander & Ebb vehicle, Chicago.
But North Adams hasn’t seen a good bevy of hip-swiveling, raccoon-eyed, androgynous chorus girls and boys in a long time! As the Leading Player Brooke Mead has a sturdy and attractive pair of hips to swivel and she does so with great gusto, as do the ten other Players, who include in their ranks choreographers Liz Urban and Alicia Ascevich. Unfortunately, Mead’s singing voice isn’t as strong as her acting. She often has to switch octaves from one line to the next, and is frequently hard to hear. Again, I am all in favor of acoustic performance, but not if it means you can’t hear anything. The Drury stage can be miked, and Mead should have been.
In fact the only two performers who didn’t need mikes were Sprague, Lauren Skiffington who plays Catherine, and Rachel Branch, an old trouper cast as, well, an old trouper – Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother. Branch was perfect for the role – a real looker at 65 with a strong set of pipes – so why, as a professional performer, was she reading the lyrics to her one and only number off the back side of a fake fan? Heck, the words to the refrain were hanging on a backdrop behind her! But nonetheless her song No Time at All and her performance were a hit. I wish I had seen Irene Ryan in that role – at least her rendition was immortalized on the original cast album. Ryan famously suffered a stroke back stage after performing that number and subsequently died.
Skiffington, who I have seen perform in a variety of roles over the years with the Drury Drama Team, is maturing into a very interesting and commanding performer. She could do with some professional voice training because she is not blessed with a natural sense of pitch, but that doesn’t stop her from standing squarely in the spotlight and belting out her numbers with a sense of power and determination, which counts for a lot. Supported by the band her pitch is fine, a cappella she struggles.
As Catherine’s duck-loving son Theo, Jake Daugherty is believable and genuine.
Cast as Pippin’s scheming step-mother, Fastrada, is Sprague’s real life mother, Diane Sprague, who has fun with her solo number, Spread a Little Sunshine. As her more-brawn-than-brains son Lewis, Matthew Snyder appears to be having more fun than is legal, which is infectious.
Ed Morandi also looks like he’s having fun as Charlemagne, and he does his level-best with his solo War Is A Science. I just wish Mill City had made him a nice battlefield map to refer to in that song. It would have made the lyrics easier to understand and wouldn’t have cost that much.
Marissa Carlson and Kate Merrigan have directed this show with energy and love. Seth Allshouse has designed an interesting all-purpose set which could be put to better use. It just sort of sits there when it could be transformed into different playing spaces allowing the chorus to swivel their hips on many different levels. The pleasant lighting is by Jon King.
Michael Roy conducts a four piece pit band which features him on piano, Steve Wheelock on flute, Tim Mangun on bass guitar and Bobby Marshall on drums.
I hope the PG-13 rating doesn’t scare too many people away from seeing this fun and ambitious production. Kids need to be exposed to something more than singing frogs, and dancing dogs, after all. I adored the score to Pippin as a teenager, and I took great inspiration from Stephen Schwartz’s youthful success. This is still a show for young people and it is wonderful to see young people presenting it with such energy and obvious enjoyment.
Mill City Productions will present Pippin at Drury High School on June 15, 16, 22 & 23 at 8 p.m. and June 17 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $8 for adults and $6 for children, students & seniors. The show runs two hours and ten minutes with one intermission and is suitable for ages 10 and up. Tickets are available for purchase at Crafty Creations and Papyri Books in downtown North Adams. Call 413-664-4778 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for reservations.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007