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Regional Reviews: New Jersey / Delaware Valley

Pippin
Princeton Summer Theater
Review by Cameron Kelsall

Also see Cameron's reviews of Fidelio and Man of La Mancha


Kyle Mangold and Cast
Photo by Jake Schade
What is the point of producing Pippin today? You may find yourself asking this question throughout Princeton Summer Theater's workmanlike production of Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson's 1972 musical, currently playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on Princeton's campus.

Sure, some of the show's themes are evergreen—the futility of war, the passing of time, the tenuous bonds between father and son. Some of the dialogue may even feel prescient: I dare you not to whisper "fake news" when one character asks "Would a newspaper print anything that wasn't true?" The show's central theme—the journey to find oneself, with all its concomitant false starts and bitter disappointments—likely resonates with much of the audience.

Still, these universalisms exist within a creaky framework that hasn't aged particularly well. Schwartz's score is chock full of recognizable hits like "Corner of the Sky," "Magic to Do," and "Simple Joys." Yet despite the talents of an onstage quartet led by keyboardist/conductor Marc Fishman, the music often sounds wan and pedestrian. Schwartz's lyrics are rarely as clever as I remembered them, and Hirson's book more often than not gets in the way of the proceedings. After a more or less fleet first act, the second half spins its wheels on the way to a predictable conclusion.

Divorced from a strong directorial concept—such as the circus-themed fantasia of Diane Paulus' dazzling 2013 Broadway revival—these deficits result in a rather long sit. Director Sam Weisberg's sense of pacing is questionable throughout; actors rush through scenes, overlap dialogue, and frequently seem unsure of what they are expected to do next. And although Cori Cook Burnett's choreography never approaches the virtuosity of Bob Fosse's original numbers, her highly stylized routines generally appear several levels above this cast's competence. The set (by Joseph Haggerty) and costumes (by Julia Peiperl) make good use of PST's limited resources, but Alex Mannix's obvious lighting choices often feel a bit too on the nose.

The production is not helped much by its cast. Kyle Mangold's Pippin is merely blasé, never suggesting the wellspring of passion that the young prince longs to apply to something, anything, that might make his life extraordinary. He possesses a gnat-sized singing voice that could be drowned out by a poorly timed candy wrapper. But do we really want to hear his blood-curdling high notes that crack and wheeze above the staff?

Similarly miscast is Alexandra Holden, whose antiseptic Leading Player captures neither the sensual allure nor the psychological dread of this lord of misrule. Without that charisma, it is hard to understand why Pippin follows her directives so faithfully for so long. Few of the performers in this production have flawless diction, but Holden is the worst offender when it comes to garbling her lyrics.

It is perhaps not surprising that Abby Melnick—who, like most of the cast, is in her early twenties—doesn't make much of the words in "No Time at All," that paean to pleasure sung by Berthe, Pippin's grandmother. But she isn't helped by the galloping pace with which the number unspools in this production, which steamrolls the sly humor of the song. At least she tries to sing, unlike Elliot Masters, whose gruff sprechgesang approach to Charles is all wrong.

Two performers manage to shine. Renee Gagner turns Fastrada's deliciously diabolical "Spread a Little Sunshine" into a mini-cabaret, suggesting the cool sexuality of a Weimar chanteuse. And Bridget McNiff's Catherine is an unadulterated treat. McNiff manages to capture the character's necessary contradictions; she is bright-eyed yet world-weary, ditzy yet profound. Her singing isn't spectacular, but who cares when she gives such a smart performance?

Is that enough to recommend a trip to what is ultimately a rather tired affair? I'm afraid not. Pippin may open with "Magic to Do," but very little actually gets done.

Pippin continues through July 9, 2017, at the Hamilton Murray Theater, Princeton University campus. Tickets can be purchased online at www.princetonsummertheater.org, or by calling 732-997-0205.


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