Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
In program notes, Artistic Director and director Eric Davis writes, "I've loved Stephen Schwartz's work almost as long as I've loved theatre and Pippin was among the first of his works that spoke to me." I wish I could share his enthusiasm, but I've always found the musical an uneven balance between a wonderful score and an episodic libretto badly stuck in a 1970s sensibility, our hero in search of his true self. Bob Fosse's amazing production, set within a long ago, probably traveling theater troupe, brought unity. Diane Paulus' 2013 production, reimagining the musical with a circus ambiance, toned down the 1970s roots a bit. The revised libretto is in use for this production.
As an alternative to what appeared when the show opened on Broadway in 1972, an extended "Theo ending" came into being in the late 1990s. The same music is used until the very end, where the versions part company. This production uses the currently licensed newer ending, and I like it more than the Broadway version.
freeFall's Pippin suffers from being understaffeda cast of seven cannot bring this musical to life. That manifests itself in many ways, the worst being that the cast seems to have been chosen for their energy and sizzle for the ensemble rather than for what they could bring to the main characters they also portray. As a result, Daniel J. Maldonado, as Pippin, is too charismatic playing an unworldly scion of the most powerful emperor in Europe; and Hannah Benitez, as Catherine, doesn't bring the earth motherly warmth that would likely lure Pippin back to her in the finale. The cast includes additional performers I have greatly enjoyed in other productions, but no one seems to be doing their best work here.
Unfortunately, Eric Davis does not bring a unified vision to this production, making me wonder if there was a mad rush to get it on the boards. At the beginning of the season he directed The Fantasticks in a highly individual way, one that I ended up loving. Was it your traditional rendering of the classic musical? Absolutely not, but it was of a piece, from beginning to end. The same can not be said of Pippin, a mishmash.
Michael Raabe is the musical director on keyboard. Stephen Schwartz wrote for piano, and keyboard muffles the wonderful percussive writing that forms the sound palette of Godspell and this musical. With him are Burt Rushing on drums, Paul Stoddard on guitar, and Julia Tretjakova on cello.
In fairness, most of the midweek audience I shared seeing it with seemed to like this production far more than I did.
Pippin, through August 11, 2019, at freeFall Theatre Company, 6099 Central Avenue, St. Petersburg FL. For ticket and performance information, visit www.freefalltheatre.com.