Pippin at the 5th Avenue Theatre
Roger O. Hirson's threadbare script, in which a mysterious group of players lure a young man into enacting the tale of medieval Emperor Charlemagne's son Pippin embarking on a voyage of self-discovery, was never what drew audiences to see the show. It was the beguiling folk rock music and clever lyrics of the young Schwartz (whose Godspell was still packin' ‘em in off-Broadway), a well nigh perfect cast headed by Ben Vereen as the slinkily Satanic leading player, and, whether Schwartz liked it or not, Fosse's own brand of Tony winning theatrical magic.
Armstrong's choreography (with assistance from Jane Lanier and Daniel Cruz) is largely static and rather a mish-mash of styles. There is a distinctive S&M tinged orgy section of "With You" that briefly enlivens act one, and a simple charm to the staging of the vaudeville tinged audience sing-along "No Time At All," but in general the lack of a really cohesive choreographic sensibility just points up the episodic nature of the show, and makes it feel much longer than it actually is.
The cast is uniformly strong-voiced and game, but certain performers just don't quite ignite. Louis Hobson, 5th Avenue's younger leading man in residence (since Cheyenne Jackson departed for Broadway), has the ideal vocal style and quality for the title role, but the actor never really finds anything about Pippin to make the audience root for him to find that elusive "Corner of the Sky." Keith Byron Kirk is way too likable a presence to adequately explore the dark underbelly of the Leading Player role, and though he too sings quite well, his moves are proficient, never approaching the kind of star turn that the role offers. Jim Gall, heavily made up to play Pippin's dear old Dad Charlemagne hits just the right note of wry humor, Jane Lanier (a Fosse-influenced dancer if ever there was one) as Pippin's wicked stepmother Fastrada seizes every opportunity to make a wicked showpiece of "Spread A Little Sunshine," and Troy Wageman as her vain-arrogant son Louis preens and prances as to the manner born.
Two stand-out performances are delivered by a pair of Broadway veteran leading ladies. Mimi Hines (a successor to Streisand as Fanny Brice in the original run of Funny Girl) wins the audience over in little more than five minutes onstage as Pippin's sage and saucy Grandmother Berthe, with her old-time show biz rousing rendition of "No Time At All." Kim Huber (best known to 5th Avenue audiences from her appearances as Belle in the national tour of Beauty and the Beast and Maria in The Sound of Music) is so utterly radiant as Pippin's ultimate beloved Catherine, that it's a pity she doesn't figure in the story till act two. Huber's gorgeous voice is amply displayed in her two solos, "Kind of Woman" and "I Guess I'll Miss the Man", and she sparks Hobson to one of his best moments in their "Love Song" duet. The mostly Seattle based ensemble, though never given choreographic challenges that match their skill level, is agile, affable, and vocally astute under Richard Gray's skillful musical direction.
The set and lighting designs by Tom Sturge are artfully done, with a particularly nice approach to the beach front locale of Grandmother Berthe, which reads as if she has retired to Palm Beach. Unfortunately, Bradley Reed's costume designs lean to the garish and vulgar, as if they were borrowed from a Vegas spectacular. And disappointing microphone issues plagued Kurt Eric Fischer's sound design on opening night.
While I heartily tip my hat to the 5th Avenue for producing musicals that have lapsed into semi-obscurity, and certainly for utilizing the rich local talent pool, Pippin, despite its virtues, ends up run-of-the mill, when it should have been extraordinary.
Pippin runs through May 21 at the 5th Avenue Theatre 1308 5th Avenue in downtown Seattle. Visit the 5th Avenue's web-site at www.5thavenuetheatre.org for further details.