Incline’s “Pippin” Mystifies and Tantalizes

Review by Doug Iden of “Pippin”: Incline Theatre

Not many musicals are set in 8th Century Europe, feature the assassination of a well-known monarch (Charlemagne), savagely satirize war and follow the travails of a young man seeking his identity and place in life.  However, that is the premise of “Pippin” which opens at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater.  Part history, part fantasy, part love story and part circus, “Pippin” blends various Broadway genres into a phantasmagorical extravaganza of singing, dancing, magic and puppetry.

We are introduced to this bizarre world by the Leading Player (a wonderful newcomer Nora DeGreen) and her troupe of players costumed (by Caren Brady) in an incongruous and multi-colored array of clothes featuring sultans, circus performers and two dancers dressed as half-man and half-woman singing the show“™s theme “œMagic to Do“.  The Leading Player acts as a narrator, critic, Greek Chorus and on-stage director and DeGreen sings and dances well while showing considerable attitude. The show satirizes many musical traditions by continually talking directly to the audience, by correcting each other“™s misspoken lines and mockingly complaining about the size of their roles, the number of their songs, etc.

Pippin (whose role is uncredited for reasons that will be clear when you see it) is the educated son of Charlemagne, of Holy Roman Empire fame (and an actual historical character), a naïve, out-of-place heir in a court filled with intrigue, power struggles and war lust. Pippin“™s personal quandary about his life“™s role is exposed in the plaintive soliloquy “œCorner of the Sky“ in which “œrivers belong where they can ramble, eagles belong where they can fly“.  The young man playing Pippin has an excellent voice and “œacts“ this dramatically significant song very well.  However, to please his blood-thirsty father (played disdainfully by Incline veteran Justin Glaser), Pippin decides to go to war against the heathen Visigoths in an extended scene featuring significant dancing and the songs “œWar is a Science“ and the ironic “œGlory“.  This is an underrated score and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz who also wrote the scores for “Godspell” and “Wicked”and wrote lyrics only for Disney animated films including “Pocahontas” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame. 

One highlight of any production of “Pippin” includes the song “œNo Time at All“ sung by Pippin“™s grandmother Berthe (Angela Alexander Nalley) with audience participation.  This is a classic comedy song which describes the difficulties of the grey-haired set.

Pippin’s self-reflective journey continues as he is convinced by manipulative stepmother Fastrada (played deliciously by Ella Rivera) to assassinate his father so her son Lewis (Chris Logan Carter) assume the throne After Pippin dispenses with his father, he learns how difficult kingship can be with the anthem “œMorning Glow“. Later he tries out the simple farming life when he meets a widow, Catherine (played by Maddie Vaughn) and her young son Theo (Benjamin Brown), all leading up to an unexpected finale.

Dancing is the king of this show.  Fosse“™s eccentric choreography is hinted at but largely reshaped by Kate Stark with one exception, during the “œGlory“ sequence when DeGreen and two other dancers perform a classic, idiosyncratic Fosse sequence replete with cane, black costume, pigeon-toed movements and the hand on the brim of the bowler hat.  Gwen Verdon could not have done better. Overall, the dancing is excellent with a mix of ballet, tap, modern dance and the homage to Fosse, all performed by ten Players and the Leading Player.  The dancing at times is very erotic with simulated sex scenes played mostly for comic effect.

In Director Matthew Wilson“™s playbill notes, he states “œfew shows offer production teams the creative freedom that ‘Pippin’ does“.  Wilson and his team of Brett Bowling (set design), Brady (costume design), Denny Reed (lighting and sound design), Stark (choreography) and Michael Kennedy (Music Director) along with magic consultant Sir Pat-Trick take full advantage of that freedom.  There are many delights in the show, including a number of magic tricks featuring a disembodied head, small fireworks and a large prop where different actors disappear and re-emerge while the prop rotates.  Puppetry also plays a hand.  Bowling“™s set design is the bare minimum this time but there are many props which enhance the overall theme of “œMagic to Do“.

“Pippin” is a great case study about the creation of a Broadway musical.  The contentious relationship between a young Schwartz and veteran genius autocrat, director/choreographer Bob Fosse led to this unusual mixture of history and parody, sweetness and dark comedy, scathing satire and naivete.   

I will admit that I went to “Pippin” with a certain trepidation because it is a difficult show to produce, having an eclectic variety of characters, genres, moods and a heavy emphasis on excellent dancing and singing.  I am pleased to state that I thought his production was excellent with wonderful singers and dancers and many sight-gag surprises.  So, grab your magic wand and enjoy the Crowning Glory of “Pippin” playing at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater through August 4.

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