Review of PIPPIN
by Gary Gonser, SFBATCC

Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by Roger O. Hirson
Directed by Kim Bromley & Jenny Boynton
Music directed by Judy Wiesen
Choreography by Katie Wickes

For tickets / schedule :
The Belrose Theatre
San Rafael, CA
1415 5th Avenue, San Rafael
Marin Musical Theatre Company
Tickets: $30-$50

RUN: January 26 – February 10, 2018
RATING: 3.5 of 5 stars

(February 9, 2018)

Pippin - Marin Musical Theatre Company

Photo by Marin Musical Theatre Company.

This production of PIPPIN is fun and high energy, a surprisingly good match to the little Belrose Theatre in San Rafael.

With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Roger O. Hirson, this show won 5 Tonys for its debut on Broadway in 1973 and 4 for its revival in 2013.  Not bad for a play that started out its life as a student musical at Carnegie Mellon.

This play within a play is presented by a traveling troupe of actors.  It’s set in 780 AD, somewhere in the old Holy Roman Empire.  At curtain, the MC or “Leading Player” (played by Earl Alfred Paus) magically transforms a simple stage into a sensual blank canvas, ready to be painted.  The group has cast Pippin (played by Zachary Isen) as a newer actor who is searching for the true meaning of his life. Not satisfied with just being the eldest son of “Charles” (king Charlemagne, played by Jere Torkelsen) in the Middle Ages, Pippin wants more. As a prince, Pippin has all the choices of the age available to him – war, academia, religion, politics, hedonism and more.  What road does he take?  Why not all (spoken like a true humanities student)?

And so it goes. The troupe takes the blank stage and creates scenes with all the choreography and costumes and makeup so outstanding in the original production on Broadway. Did I say the original Director & Choreographer was Bob Fosse? This production goes all out to bring out the best of dance and choreography so inherent in its sensual beginnings.

Pippin’s first choice of life path is academia, but this grows old fast within the court of Charlemagne. The path of war leads to battle with the Visigoths, but Pippin is appalled by the violence (surprise?). Escaping to the countryside, Pippin visits his exiled grandmother Bertha (played by Kim Bromley), who clears the air a bit by telling him that he needs to experience life, because youth is gone “in no time at all.” Life revels in romantic antics on stage, accentuated by the delightful ensemble. Pippin tires of that as well and follows the Leading Player’s advice to try politics.

Charles’ second wife Fastrada (played by Marla Cox) does a good job of cajoling Pippin into murdering her husband, the good Charles. She hopes her son Lewis (played by Nelson Brown) will survive the plot to become king. “Down with tyrants” becomes the mantra of the minute, and Pippin kills his father for his heartless ways as king. Intermission follows after a promise of the “best finale ever” after the break.

Pippin - Marin Musical Theatre Company

Photo by Marin Musical Theatre Company.

Pippin takes over the crown, but is not able to resolve the issues of the kingdom and begs the Leading Player to bring king Charles back to life so he can settle the kingdom down again. DONE!  Pippin then tries art and finally religion. Nothing works. He despairs. Along comes the widow Catherine (played by Jenny Boynton) who takes Pippin in to help her on the farm with her son Theo (played by Carl Robinett). Eventually, we get to love as the answer to Pippin’s developmental crises. Simple, but it takes a life to appreciate love.

The troupe ensemble ebbs and flows around the characters to add interest to this rather linear story. It works. There is never a dull moment with song and dance defining the emotions along the way. Comedy is the rule here, and when Bromley sings her “No Time at All,” she invites the audience to join her chorus to wish Pippin a full love life around the neighborhood.

The ensemble dancers are fantastic. Nine “players” fill all the dancing and support roles perfectly with face makeup and costumes having a mix of styles and colors reminiscent of “King Arthur” and “Hair.”  In the small space that is the Belrose, the audience shares the intimacy of the work onstage. Having made quick work of the art of war, the players move smoothly into the exotic, erotic and passionate areas around Pippin’s future development.

The lighting works well to define the action and sensuality surrounding Pippin’s travels.  It is obvious that lighting designer Marilyn Izdebski knows her lights and technique. Choreographer Katie Wickes and costumer Amaris Blagborne do wonders with this play to make it shine. The ensemble in these capable hands looks stunning. The 5-piece band was perfect for the voices working Judy Wiesen’s music magic.

Overall, PIPPIN at the Belrose Theatre is fun and energetic, with a good cast that is able to carry the storyline with an attitude that does not let the play drag. Yes, there is a dramatic ending but I can’t reveal it. The ending hints at the beginning of another life on this stage. I believe the Lead Player will take it from here.