If You Ask Me… “Pippin”

Playhouse On Park

A Gloomy Looking “Pippin” at Playhouse on Park

By Tom Holehan
Connecticut Critics Circle

Stephen 1970s classic, “Pippin”, is having quite a dark (literally and figuratively) revival at the Playhouse on Park (POP) in West Hartford. This is a very much a musical of its time what with its casual use of the “rape” word and unabashed objectification of women (the book is by Roger O. Hirson). Though it may not have aged well, that infectious score with music and lyrics by Mr. Schwartz still delights.

“Pippin” is an oh-so-loose adaptation about Charlemagne and his young son, Pippin, two real-life individuals of the early Middle Ages. Safe to say that for the musical’s purposes, historical accuracy ends there. Prince Pippin (Shannon Cheong) is heir to his father’s throne but is disillusioned and goes on a search for true happiness and the meaning of life. The musical uses the premise of a Leading Player (Thao Ngyuen) who, with a troupe of lively players continually break the fourth wall and comment on and direct Pippin’s extraordinary journey.

At the Playhouse, director/choreographer Darlene Zoller gets great ensemble work, both vocally and choreographically, from the mostly non-Equity company. The voices are strong throughout even if Ngyuen gets a tad shouty by act two and Cheong is strident on the high notes. That’s probably why this production sounds best when it has the entire company singing gems like “Magic to Do”, “Morning Glow” and the finale.

As Pippin’s preening step-brother, Lewis, Brad Weatherford plays the one-note role with confidence and is an amazingly flexible dancer. I found Gene Choquette’s Charlemagne underwhelming and lacking power a problem he shares with SuEllen Estey playing Pippin’s grandmother whose single number, “No Time at All”, usually stops the show but doesn’t here. The strongest individual work is done by Kate Wesler, hilarious and in powerful voice as Fastrada, Pippin’s sexy stepmom, and Juliana Lamia’s Catherine, Pippin’s love interest who is simply lovely in the role.

Zoller’s choreography is terrific and really makes the most of the limited space at POP, but her book scenes tend towards the sluggish often slowing the musical down. Most harmful however is Johann Fitzpatrick’s glum scenic design which is devoid of color or imagination. At the finale when the Leading Player strips away “all the magic”, the set looks remarkably unchanged. Jackson Funke’s cloudy lighting does not help and it is further dimmed by the non-stop addition of dry ice pumped in throughout. The dreary atmosphere seriously cuts into the fun of “Pippin” draining it of the magic and light we are promised from the beginning.

It may go without saying here that the vocally strong company at POP is the best reason to purchase a ticket to this “Pippin”. “Pippin” continues at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Road in West Hartford through August 21st. For further information, call the box office at: 860-523-5900 X10 or visit: www.playhouseonpark.com.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and the Stratford Crier and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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