Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's review of The Lightning Thief
Pippin is the tale of a prince (Pippin), the eldest son of King Charlemagne. After receiving an elite education, Pippin searches for his purpose in life, and tries to find it in a number of frivolous pursuits including war, sexual debauchery, drugs and power. He finally realizes that happiness is found in meaningful relationships, in this case in the form of the widow Catherine and her young son Theo. The show debuted on Broadway in 1972, and had a significant revival in 2013.
The book for Pippin is by Roger O. Hirson and is structured as a play within a play. Hirson has a troupe of performers perform the story of Pippin, led by the crafty Leading Player. This approach provides for an unconventional and surreal tone which is at times somewhat intentionally disturbing and uncomfortable. However, there's plenty of showbiz glitz, political and social commentary, and moral subtext to intrigue and engage an audience as well. With the troublesome invasion by Russia into Ukraine, the section on the follies of war feels especially timely.
Despite the challenging plot and storytelling devices, the songs by Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Godspell) are highly melodic and contain simple, straightforward, and poetic lyrics. Song highlights include the energetic opening production number ("Magic To Do"), a plaintive want song conveying Pippin's desire for personal fulfillment ("Corner of the Sky"), a cute charm song ("No Time at All"), a haunting choral piece ("Morning Glow"), and a romantic ballad ("Love Song").
Director Eric Santagata provides active blocking, an appropriate transition in tone from hopeful to foreboding, and an overall hip staging of a show that could easily feel dated. He also creates moments of theatricality which are fun, and the humor of the piece comes through very well. The dances by Katie Johannigman are in the style of original choreographer Bob Fosse without being copies, except for the typical recreation of his "Manson Trio" moves during "Glory." Dance highlights include the aforementioned "Glory," "War Is a Science", and "Spread a Little Sunshine." Roger Grodsky energetically leads a superb 25-piece orchestra.
As Pippin, Sammy Schechter is appropriately earnest yet unsatisfied, and he provides beautiful singing throughout. Christian Kidd is a fierce and ominous Leading Player, delightfully prowling around the stage in an androgynous take on the role with flashes of James Brown and Prince thrown in. Kidd's body control while dancing is astonishing. Sam David Cohen is an imposing figure physically and in his demeanor as Charlemagne, and he is a gifted vocalist as well. In some gender-bending casting, Michael E. Lee Jr. portrays Pippin's grandmother Bertha with flair, sass, and the proper level of free-spiritedness, and is an audience favorite. As Catherine, Tori Heinlein is able to be both annoying and tenderly endearing at the same time as is called for in the role, and sings capably. Anna Chase Lainer dances up a storm as Fastrada and captures the sultry and manipulative manner of the character. Brandon Schumacker is a vain and dimwitted Louis, and Julia Yameen manipulates a puppet version of Catherine's son Theo skillfully. The ensemble does well vocally and with the dances overall, though there are a few instances where individuals were somewhat out of sync or off in their timing at the performance I attended.
While there are no major problems and the talent level is still very high, the overall singing and execution is not quite up to the level of most previous shows at CCM, but this could be a residual effect of several years in the COVID-19 environment of our world.
The stark and dark scenic design by Ben Beardon doesn't particularly bring Pippin to mind, but it is a handsome and utilitarian set. It evokes both modern and ancient times, with an industrial mix of concrete and metal, and features three staircases and two firehouse poles for entrances and exits. The lighting by Alex Mason is sure-handed and well rendered. María Fernanda Ortiz a López's costumes and the wigs and make-up by Colin Gallaher are attractive and in the steam punk style, with a bit of goth thrown in as well, and are suitable complements to the set design.
Pippin is a difficult show to do well, but CCM's production hits all the right marks. With dramatic flair, unique visuals, and talented cast, crew and orchestra, this mounting is a praiseworthy one.
Pippin runs through March 6, 2022, at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Corbett Auditorium, 290 CCM Blvd, Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, call 513-556-4183 or visit UniversityTickets.com