“Pippin” at CCM: It’s ‘Pippin’ Hot
Posted On March 4, 2022
Review by Doug Iden
The musical Pippin is a unique show which CCM has taken full advantage of by presenting a spectacle that incorporates some original aspects with a new vision of the production. Based upon a real-life person who was a son of Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor in ninth century Europe. But Pippin is not historical fiction but rather a phantasmagoric about a lost and naive soul.
Pippin’s uniqueness starts with the opening number when three characters emerge in centerstage via an elevator. Surrounded by two “circus” characters is the Leading Player (Christian Kidd) who intones “join us” as the opening words of “Magic to Do”. The Leading Player is soon joined by a chorus of grotesque “players” who slink and seductively ooze across the stage. The Leading Player is key to the production as both a narrator and a character who is part mentor, conscience and seducer to the “dark side” for Pippin.
Next, we meet Pippin (Sammy Schechter) who is trying to find his identity and rightful place in life as he poignantly seeks his “Corner of the Sky”. Snippets of this song repeat throughout as Pippin lurches from scholar to soldier to revolutionary to assassin to farmer to cleric to one stripped of total identity. This character arc is crucial and Schechter’s acting allows us to believe the various transformations.
Then, the Leading Player introduces us to Charlemagne (Sam David Cohen) who presents an intimidating character who is determined to Christianize all heathens, even if he has to kill them all first. Two excellent production numbers follow with “War is Science” and “Glory” which manifests Charlemagne as the Warrior Emperor and creates the conflict between Pippin and his younger brother Louis (Brandon Schumaker) with his ally mother Fastrada (Anna Chase Lanier) who are determined to make Louis the king.
Pippin becomes disenchanted with war as he witnesses people dying in the “Glory” number and decides to challenge his father, aided by his scheming mother Fastrada as she tries to “Spread a Little Sunshine”. Lanier has an excellent singing voice and vamps a dance while winking at the audience. The assassination plot works but then is reversed. (This is a fantasy, after all.) But, Pippin and Leading Player think that Pippin is “On the Right Track” in a delightful ending to Act One.
The play continues to engage the audience directly as another uniqueness. In one of the best comic songs ever written for Broadway, Pippin’s grandmother Bertha (played as a transvestite by Michael E. Lee, Jr.) arrives on a trapeze to provide Pippin with advice. Lee cavorts as Bertha while singing the hilarious senior citizen anthem “No Time At All”. Halfway through the song, Bertha asks the audience join in the chorus whose lyrics appear on a big sign. Done well, this scene is the cherry on top and the highlight of the show and Lee (and company) deliver.
In act two, Pippin has left the castle and is found by Catherine, a widowed landowner played by Tori Heinlein. After several weeks of recuperation, Pippin starts to help around the farm and tries to befriend Theo, Catherine’s son. Theo is shown as a puppet manipulated by Julia Yameen in a new CCM take on the play. Heinlein plays Catherine more comedically than dramatically but, eventually, they become a couple singing a “Love Song”. The finale is also unique but you’ll just have to see it yourself.
As usual, CCM productions are “Extraordinary” (also a song from the show). The set design by Ben Beardon is interesting because it merely hints at a medieval setting and the “circus” of the players. Centerstage is the elevator which allows entrances and exits but also, when closed, is the base for a mini-stage, a bed and a fiery pit. Lighting by Alex Mason enhances the emotional impact with a “bloody” red backlighting during the war scenes and the finale but counters with blue lighting during the domestic and idyllic scenes with Pippin and Catherine.
Costumes by Maria Lopez cover the gamut of circus performers, soldiers, Everyman (Pippin), ringmaster (Leading Player), clerics, peasants, exotic and erotic onesies etc.
Pippin was originally directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse, who had his own idiosyncratic style using his hand, seductive body movements, hats and herky-jerky movements. I’m always interested to see how modern choreographers like Katie Johannigman treat the dancing. Johannigman blends Fosse-esque movements with modern dance and ballet. There is still enough Fosse to please purists (like me) but also indelibly stamp their own vision. This style of dancing is very difficult and the CCM dancers are excellent.
The music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (also composer and lyricist for Godspell and Wicked) still resonate. Additional vocal highlights include “Kind of Woman” (Heinlein), “With You” (Schechter) and the company for “Simple Joys”, “Morning Glow” and the finale.
This is one of my favorite shows and CCM, as usual, brings it to life with the entire package of acting, singing, dancing and technical led by Director Eric Santagata and Musical Director Roger
Godsky (who toned down the volume after the first few scenes).
So, dust off your medieval history book, oil your rusty armor and gallop down to the Corbett Theater at CCM while the show is still Pippin hot. Click HERE for tickets (while they last!)
Doug Iden is an avid, lifelong theater fan with an extensive collection of original cast albums. He also teaches classes on musical theater at OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute).