Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Foothill Music Theatre Presents an Energetic Production of Pippin
Pippin premiered on Broadway at the Imperial Theatre on October 23rd, 1972 where it ran for 1944 performances. I saw the original during the fall of that year with John Rubinstein, Jill Clayburgh, Irene Ryan, Eric Barry and the sensational Ben Vereen making his Tony winning debut. I also saw the London production in 1973 at Her Majesty's Theatre with Paul Jones as Pippin and Patricia Hodge as Catherine with the veteran British actress Elisabeth Welch playing the grandmother. The Canadian Broadcasting Company televised the complete one-act musical in 1981 with Ben Vereen repeating his role, William Katt playing Pippin and the terrific Martha Raye as the grandmother. Chita Riviera played the part of Fastrada. This was picked up by Showtime in 1982 and televised for American audiences.
Through the years, Pippin has become popular with university theatre groups since it demands young and talented performers. Goodspeed Opera House presented a two-act version with a new ending during the summer of 2006. Following that it went on a short tour.
Pippin purports to tell of the life and times of Pippin the Hunchback, son of Charlemagne who united France in the early seventh century. The lead character in every version of the musical I have seen is not a hunchback but a young, virile, good looking hunk. Pippin is a wide-eyed naif who has just come back from university to his father's court. The father is the greatest king in Christendom and "pretty good in the bed, too." A person who looks like Lucifer and is only known as the Leading Player with his troupe of young and energetic actors presents Pippin's rise and fall. There is much going on during this two-hour, two-act production, including several wars, mutilations, two sex orgies, incest, patricide and even self-immolation (and catch the foot fetish through the musical). However, all of this is treated lightly with a very sparkling and innovative score by Stephen Schwartz.
Pippin's second act slows down as it presents a charming pastoral scene of Pippin and his lover, the widow Catherine, along with her young son Theo and his duck. The music becomes more melodic with several nice romantic ballads.
Stephen Schwartz's score is an eclectic mix of syncopated music, particularly the fancy jazz in the "Glory," a glorification of fighting and violence. "Corner of the Sky," repeated by Pippin and the chorus, is lovely and melodious. Catherine has some charming romantic songs in the second act, including "Love Song" and "Kind of Woman." The Leading Player sings vibrant songs like "Magic to Do" and "Simple Joys." Berthe the grandmother sings the popular, bouncy and good feeling song "No Time at All," in which the audience helps sing the chorus.
Joe Duffy has patterned his choreography after Bob Fosse's, and the energetic cast do some fancy foot work in the intricate dances. Jay Manley's direction is excellent on the small stage with the cast using the aisles for some of the action.
Rudy Guerrero (13 Hallucinations of Julio Rivera, A Question of Mercy, The Golden Apple, Can-Can) has all the right moves as the cunning Leading Player. He is more sycophantic than powerful as the fascinating seducer and emcee.
Nathan Baynard (Honk!, Medea: the Musical, Singin' in the Rain) is very good as the naïve young prince. He has a powerful voice full of thematic resonance in "Corner of the Sky." Doug Baird (Cabaret, Dames at Sea) plays the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire more like a Shakespearean actor. He has a good distinguished voice for the part. Coco Dolenz (Candide) is very good as Berthe the grandmother with a splendid singing voice in "No Time at All."
Andrew Ceglio (Emcee in Cabaret and Henry in The Fantasticks) is outstanding as the evil Prince Lewis. He has a great, bell clear voice, and his movements are reminiscent of a young Martin Short. Carrie Madsen (Flora the Red Menace) as the evil Fastrada is sexy and has good vocal chops in the comic song "Spread a Little Sunshine." Alice Teeter (Urinetown, Annie Get Your Gun) is very good portraying the widow Catherine. She has a charming, mellifluous voice in the romantic songs in the second act.
Pippin's new ending shows Pippin having been deserted by the Leading Player and his troupe for not following the instructions of the devilish man to end the musical. The old ending featured the question posed by Catherine "How do you feel?" with Pippin answering, "Trapped but happy, which isn't bad for the end a musical comedy." The new ending makes more sense with the young Theo now being the center of attention.
Pippin plays through March 11th at the Foothill College Playhouse, 12345 El Monte Rd, (I-280 at El Monte Road) Los Altos Hills. For tickets call 650-949-7360 or 650-949-7414 or visit www.foothillmusicals.com.
The company's next production is Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel opening July 17 and running through August 19th.