Originally conceived by composer Stephen Schwartz as a college musical, the story (book by Roger O. Hirson) focuses on a group of performers who are overseen by a Leading Player who serves as the master of ceremonies. They tell the tale of naive young prince Pippin who has just returned home after getting his education. His father, the King Charlemagne, has married a much younger woman, Fastrada, and her son Lewis has already taken his place in Charlemagne's army. Pippin, not sure how he can prove himself, believes that going to battle will do just that, and so begins the first of many quests for Pippin to find his way in life. Along his journey he finds art, religion, has lots of mindless sex that leaves him empty and unfulfilled, meets up with his grandmother who gives him some wise advice, and encounters a young widow and her son. But all things don't exactly go the way as planned and Pippin still believes he is simply an "extra ordinary" man with an unfulfilled life. It is an interesting story about a young man on the search for his purpose in life, a life where living in a castle and being wealthy may not be what is best for Pippin, instead preferring a life of modesty and "simple joys."
It is a simple and often told tale but director Michael Barnard has surrounded the story with a group of circus performers including aerial acrobats, tumblers and dancers. They, along with added magic tricks, creative elements that explode with color, and energetic choreography, elevate this simple tale into one of mystery, suspense and enjoyment. The circus performers also add a nice element of showbiz "razzle dazzle" to the proceedings. And, in a way, each of the performers has his or her own extraordinary talent, which is a nice counter to how "extra ordinary" Pippin sees himself. While the book of the show still leaves a little to be desired, bogging down a bit in the second act, the pop-rock score by Stephen Schwartz is wonderful, with several showstoppers including "Corner of the Sky," "Simple Joys" and "Morning Glow."
At the center of the show is Paul Stovall as the Leading Player, a role originated by Ben Vereen in the 1972 Broadway production. Stovall may not have Vereen's commanding dance moves, but his large physique makes him a tremendous force and adds both comic and serious sides to the role. While he is sexual and sweet and usually nice, the Leading Player also can become very intimidating and disturbing, too. Anthony Johnson makes Pippin a sweet, naive and charming yet awkward young man and does a fine job in taking us along on Pippin's journey of self discovery. We see the excitement of the things he is encountering and can clearly understand his confusion when things don't go the way he planned. The fact that he's on the smaller side and very trim makes his many pairings with the very tall and broad Stovall a treat. Stovall even picks Johnson up at one point. Both Johnson and Stovall have nice singing voices and a good understanding of the roles they are playing.
Also in the cast are Mike Lawler and Jenny Hintze as Charlemagne and Fastrada. Both are good in their supporting parts with Lawler a forceful but fun King and Hintze sexy as the conniving second wife with some sleek dance moves. Kathi Osborne is Berthe, Pippin's grandmother. Osborne makes Berthe a fun-loving and sensual lady and she also has an enjoyable time with her first act solo "No Time at All." While Lawler, Hintze and Osborne are good, it is really Trisha Hart Ditsworth as Catherine who rises above them all in the supporting cast. As the young widow that Pippin meets who makes him realize the possibilities of a simple life, Ditsworth puts a hot jolt of electricity into the usually somewhat wooden second act. She is earthy and charming but also very funny and touching with a superb singing voice. Her two solo songs have such charm and depth to them that it really makes you see this show, Pippin's journey, and this woman he meets, in a whole new light. Having seen Ditsworth earlier this season in the Arizona Broadway Theatre productions of Hairspray where she was hilarious as Penny and The Sound of Music where she excelled as Maria, it is nice to see her continued success in a succession of varied roles. Each member of the large ensemble cast is given a moment or two to shine, and all are incorporated effectively and seamlessly into the story.
Michael Barnard's direction moves the show along at a quick clip but also allows the right amount of time for the circus choreography that he and Mark Stuart have provided as well as the aerial choreography by Gavin Sisson to complement the score and book. During "War Is a Science," the use of stylized choreographed hand gestures for the ensemble that Pippin tries to mimic in order to fit in, is a nice touch. The "Finale" in this production is better directed than the current Broadway revival, with a clear and distinct understanding of the conflict that Pippin feels between his boring life with Catherine and the spectacular life that the Leading Player proposes for him. Barnard also wisely uses the new updated ending that adds an ironic end note to the proceedings. The combination of the excellently staged ending and Ditsworth's portrayal of Catherine makes the entire second act a revelation.
The look of this show explodes with color as the scenic design by Robert Kovach, using vibrant reds, gold and greens in the large set pieces, combines seamlessly with Mike Eddy's superb lighting design that is awash in shimmering colors. Costume designs by Cari Sue Smith also perfectly combine the colorful circus theme with the required sensual and serious elements of the plot. Making Pippin's costume beige, when everyone else's is extremely colorful, is another way of having Pippin stick out as "ordinary" from everyone else. Gerard Kelly's hair and make-up designs add a nice edge, with some of the cast having painted face designs and others having stylized hair designs with sharp edges.
Is Pippin a perfect show? No, but it is one with many magical and memorable moments, including some excellent songs by Schwartz. With the circus theme of the Phoenix Theatre's reimagining and Trisha Hart Ditsworth's excellent portrayal of Catherine, most of the show's shortcomings are overcome, turning this musical into a joyful and dazzling story of self-discovery.
Pippin runs through March 30, 2014, at the Phoenix Theatre at 100 E. McDowell Road in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at phoenixtheatre.com or by calling (602) 254-2151
Director/Choreographer: Michael Barnard