`Pippin': Performances fine, the music less so

March 13, 2003|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For a musical about a historical figure, Pippin has very little to do with history.

What composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz did was to use the story of Pippin, son of medieval Europe's great emperor Charlemagne, as a means of exploring questions more redolent of our modern search for meaning.

In this 30-year-old Broadway show, now in production at Colonial Players of Annapolis, Pippin (called Pepin in linguistically correct textbooks) is an addlebrained youth out to find transcendent meaning in his life.

As the young man pursues his options - war, hedonism, political activism, artistic creativity and committed love - and flops at all of them, his inner demons come to the fore. They are personified by a singing, dancing, rather diabolical Leading Player (a role created on Broadway by the great Ben Vereen), and a swirling troupe of singers and dancers who promise magic but wind up egging on Pippin's suicidal conflagration into "one perfect flame."

Graced as it is with a thoughtful message, engaging characters and a succession of attractive soft-rock songs, Pippin can be a great joy.

But at Colonial, the joys are fleeting. For while there are some first-rate performances emanating from director Barry Genderson's handsome cast, far too many musical matters have been left unattended for the score to, well, score. Judging from Friday's results, in fact, it's fair to conclude that there simply was not a firm musical hand on the tiller.

The mood-setting "Magic To Do" opening was slow, stodgy and full of insecure entrances, as was its reprise at the end of Act I. Inexpert drumming and tentative keyboard work from the accompanying trio of musicians kept several interludes from jelling, most notably the climax of "Morning Glow" and "No Time at All," the ode to fun and frolic sung by Pippin's spirited Grandma. Tempos in the latter were out of whack, and difficulties were compounded as the actress playing the role lost both her words and her sense of pitch in the third verse.

Despite the Ben Vereen signature, nothing says the Leading Player must be an African-American song-and-dance man, and Colonial elected to plight its troth with Carol Cohen, a white female who acts and dances the role like the gifted stage veteran she is.

The problem, alas, is that she is not a first-class singer and is dogged by pitch problems in most of her songs - "Magic To Do," "Simple Joys," and "Glory" for starters. Once again, musical matters took a back seat.

Things go better with the rest of the leads, especially David Thompson, who, though thin in his upper range, sings acceptably and acts wonderfully in the title role. He's a hilarious bundle of facial and kinetic energy as Pippin adopts and dismisses his various callings, and his sparkle imparts vigor to every scene he's in.

The other standout is Ray Flint as Charlemagne, whose voice is as deep as his character is funny. Kudos also to Dean Davis as Pippin's smarmy half-brother, Lewis.

Lesley Miller is pleasant as Catherine, the young widow who wins Pippin's heart for a time. I also admired the fresh energy of Christy Stouffer as Frastrada, Pippin's devious stepmother, though I laugh far more when the character is portrayed as a floozy instead of the fresh, all-American girl she comes across as here.

Colonial's hippie costuming is attractive, and the ensemble numbers are so engaging that one barely notices the lack of a set.

Pippin is theater with a moral, so let's end with one here: If your destination is a fine performance of a Broadway show, matters of musical preparation should ride in front or you really needn't bother getting into the car in the first place.

Pippin plays at Colonial Players of Annapolis through March 29. Call 410-268-7373 for tickets and information.

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