Monday, September 24, 2018

Lakewood Takes a Fresh Look at Pippin

Jessica Tidd, Kelly Sina, Theo Curl, Paul Harestad, Joan Freed, 
Stephanie Heuston, and Dan Murphy

By Tina Arth

Beneath the dazzling costumes, brilliant choreography, and winning pop score in Lakewood Theatre Company’s current production of Pippin lurks an ambitious, rewardingly thought-provoking allegory about nothing less than the meaning of life - and it works! My favorite kind of show is one where I enjoy myself in the moment, but walk out contemplating a rich menu of themes and interpretations; while I saw the show a few times many years ago, Steven Schwartz and Roger Hirson’s 1972 musical play within a play never triggered this reaction in me before. Director Paul Angelo, his production team, and cast captured my attention in the moment and beyond, and it was a revelation to see so much more in the show than I have seen before.

Part of the shift in my attitude comes from a small change added in the late ‘90s, well after the last time I saw the show – what is known (thanks, Google!) as “The Theo Ending.” Without going into detail that might give away too  much, I will just say that this Pippin always ended with a hefty dose of The Wizard of Oz, but now has an added dash of Camelot that was quite unexpected and casts the whole evening in a new light.
The show is a play within a play, where a group of traveling actors (appropriately led by the Leading Actor) presents the tale of Pippin, a son of Charlemagne who has been raised to believe that he is exceptional, and who goes out into the world seeking his glorious destiny. (As I write, yet another revelation – Pippin may have been “born” as a baby boomer, but he is in many ways a millennial!) He tries to find meaning and happiness on the battlefield, through sensual excess, and in the high drama of political intrigue, but all to no avail. The disheartened prince is taken in by Catherine, a widow in need of a man about the place to manage her estate and help raise her son, Theo. Pippin gradually slips into the routine of domestic life, then flees in dismay when he sees how very ordinary his life has become. As the Leading Player loses control of her troupe, the line between play and play-within-a-play gets blurred, giving more power to the allegorical nature of the story.
Jessica Tidd’s long, sinuously flexible body, powerful voice and unshakeable confidence give the Leading Player a captivating mixture of charm and menace that evokes Joel Grey in Cabaret. She is a directorial dominatrix who tolerates no theatrical monkey business  – she snaps like a whip at the least sign of rebellion, using a quick and venomous tongue to keep the rest of the cast in line.
Audience favorite (at least in my row) Dan Murphy as a befuddled and thoroughly cowed Charlemagne is just plain fun, and his jolly delivery of “War is a Science” stands out in a show filled with snappy tunes. And then there’s Stephanie Heuston as Charlemagne’s second wife, Fastrada. Heuston is probably a lovely woman in real life, but on stage she creates the seductive, manipulative stepmother of nightmares, and her “Spread a Little Sunshine” provides another show highlight. With Fastrada as Pippin’s wicked stepmother, of course we get her son Lewis as all three of Cinderella’s stepsisters rolled into one sneering, bullying, singing, dancing package of evil, and Erik Montague plays it to the hilt.
One of the most enduring numbers from Pippin is the snappy pop tune “No Time at All” delivered by Pippin’s grandmother, Berthe (Joan Freed). Freed gives her “Berthe” a feisty, free-spirited buoyance that belies granny stereotypes – when she belts out “it’s time to start living” she clearly reminds us that life ain’t over ‘til it’s over, and even the Leading Player’s taunts cannot quench her spirit.
The two most important roles are the widow Catherine (Kelly Sina) and, of course, Pippin (Paul Harestad). Both actors play it just right – so modest and self-effacing when compared to the razzle-dazzle flamboyance of the rest of the cast that we initially underestimate them, and only gradually realize that they are the real story. Harestad’s performance is perfect – seemingly a bit naïve and self-effacing, he holds back his full power so that his singing and dancing quietly fill the demands of the role. Sina’s performance is subtle, too, but in a more mature way that demands our attention when she is on stage.  Her vocals with Harestad, like “Love Song,” are especially compelling, and I really loved the adult resignation in her delivery of “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man.” Theo Curl (as Theo) captures the essence of a young boy (which, conveniently, he is) – sometimes spoiled, whiny, demanding – a kid you, like Pippin, have to learn to love – but also a kid who earns the significance of “The Theo Ending.”
It’s quite possible to love this show without digging into its gentler themes – the overall production is every bit as extraordinary as the life Pippin thinks he wants. The set is sparse and flexible, just what’s needed for a traveling troupe, but Erin Shannon’s often-acrobatic choreography is over-the-top dazzling, and Pippin offers unquestionably the best dancers I’ve seen in years. Music director Valery Saul’s work with the vocal ensemble does full justice to the rich score, and the orchestra is not only flawless, but also a lot of fun to watch. Finally, Signe Larsen’s makeup design and Melissa Heller’s costumes add immeasurably to the carnival atmosphere that forms this show’s flamboyantly spectacular exoskeleton.
Pippin is playing at the Lake Oswego’s Lakewood Center for the Arts through Sunday, October 14th.

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