Pippin, book by Roger O. Hirson, music and lyrics Stephen Schwartz; produced by Kansas City Repertory Theatre: seen September 21, 2012
I came across Pippin when I was in college, and the show hit me to the core. From the breaking of the fourth wall to the anti-war/anti-establishment messages to the theme of trying to find out who you are and wanting to be extraordinary, the show took everything about stereotypical musical theatre conventions and made something new out of them. So, when I read that Rosen’s version of Pippin was going to be a different take, I was intrigued as to what I was going to see.
Rosen mentioned he wanted to take Pippin out of the 70s, and he does – and puts it straight into the 80s. The players are now rock ‘n’ rollers, headbanging “Magic to Do” and parts of “War is Science”, with a lighting scheme to match. While some of the songs work under this re-tweak (a rock “Corner of the Sky” and a zydeco-style “Spread a Little Sunshine” are especially interesting), some of them (most notably “With You”, where Claybourne Elder’s Pippin plays various instruments and then the scene turns into a Madonna video) come across more gimmicky and distracts from the song at hand.
The modernization works best with Fastrada (Katie Kalahurka) and Sam Cordes (who steals every scene he’s in as Lewis), and Mary Testa nearly saves the show as a rock-n-roll granny version of Berthe. While John Hickok’s Charles works as a politician as opposed to King, since this is an election season, I expected more bite to the political message underlying this show as a result. And with Rosen mentioning in interviews that he wanted to be very different from what’s known about the show, you’d think he’d ask Wallace Smith to dial down the Ben Vereen in playing the Leading Player.
However, Elder does a fine job in the title role, and it’ll be no surprise to hear that Katie Gilchrist is wonderful as Catherine (and their sex scene is awesome, right down to the porn music going on). And, of course, the tech was fabulous – the lighting design matching the idea of a rock band perfectly. The ending, while a little slower than I was expecting, hits the theme right on the head.
However, for the most part, it’s an uneven beast. When it’s working, it’s really working – but when it’s not …. If you have any love for Pippin, you really do need to ‘Cast all previous expectations aside,’ even if they do say to ‘stick to the damn script.’ Rosen is trying so hard to be different that the show gets lost at times as a result. While I wasn’t expecting a re-enactment of the video I know and love, at the same time if you want to do something that different, do a different show.
There’s a video from Yahoo!’s SketchY comedy series, a parody of the song (and probably video) of “We Are Young” entitled “We’re Not Young”, that is about being in your mid-30s and still struggling to find out who you are and what you want to do with your life. In other words, the basic plot/theme of Pippin (and, of course, other stories) – and I couldn’t help but think of this video at the end. (“So, if by the time I’m 40 and I’m still a waiter here, I’m killing myself tonight.”) This production fits that theme – it’s struggling to know what exactly it wants to be.
If you’ve never seen Pippin and don’t know the music, you’ll probably enjoy the production. However, if you are a fan of the musical, you’ll spend a good 20 to 30 minutes of the show forcing yourself to realize this is NOT the show you know. Pippin plays until October 7, and more information can be found at www.kcrep.org.
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