Collaboration produces delightful 'pippin'
By MARILYN JOZWIK
Published Aug. 20, 2018
Stephen Schwartz wrote the music and lyrics for “Pippin,” first staged in 1972, a time of hippies, Vietnam and social unrest. Just two years earlier came Schwartz’s first show, “Godspell,” which has a similar free-spirited feel.
“Pippin,” presented by Lake Country Playhouse and the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha, melds the vibe of that era with the story of Pippin (Allan Zablocki), the son of Charlemagne (Karl Miller), trying to make a name for himself in 8th century Europe. Charlemagne united much of Europe under Christianity through brutality, promising to “bring Christianity to the entire world if we have to kill every non-believer to do it.”
The set and colorful, shimmering costumes – Jazmin Aurora Medina is the costume designer -- are remindful of a circus or a Vegas show. The Lunt-Fontanne Theatre has ample size for all the shenanigans, including cartwheels, some very sharp ribbon twirling – even a stilt walker.
Co-directed by Sandra Renick and Steve Decker, the cast responded with a high-energy, whimsical show with a classic message of youth seeking to do something great and ending with a bit of “Wizard of Oz” and “There’s no place like home” for Pippin. But will Theo continue restless search for greatness?
The show opens with “Magic to Do” in which Pippin, a rudderless youth, joins the Players, headed by the Leading Player (Romesh Alex Jaya), who help tell the young prince’s story, often breaking the fourth wall in talking to the audience to do so. Pippin wants to do something with his life (“I want my life to be something more than long”), so he begs his father to let him go to battle against the Visigoths. “We’re braver and stronger and have God on our side,” says Pippin.
The educated Pippin is uncomfortable with his uneducated, brutal father, and vice versa. There is a stylized battle using canes and other props, with faux body parts left behind, a nicely done scene with some not-too-subtle anti-war sentiments.
We meet up with other characters in Pippin’s life, including his stepmother (Kelly Kuczkowski)– who would love to see both Charlemagne and Pippin out of the way so her dim-witted – but able-bodied – son Lewis could take over. Pippin’s grandmother (Maggie Wirth) appears near the end of Act I and tells him, basically, to get off his butt and start enjoying life. This scene is the highlight of the show, with Wirth taking over the stage, as she always does, with aplomb and engagement and, in this case, a sense of joy. Surrounded by three hunky male Players who fawn over her like she’s an aging diva on a Vegas stage, Wirth cavorts and cajoles with her husky voice. With the words written on big cards, they implore the audience to join in singing: “Oh, it's time to start livin', time to take a little from this world we're given …” The audience loved it.
In Act II, Pippin, taking grandma’s suggestion, sows some wild oats but still feels unfulfilled. He passes out, succumbing to despair, and is found on the road by the widow Catherine (Ashley Sprangers), who is enchanted by the arch of his foot. She nurtures him back to health and soon he finds himself helping Catherine tend her farm and her young son. But he still yearns for something more, longs to do something great.
The finale is a wonderful, magical moment, beautifully staged with Morgan Brenner’s lighting adding emphasis to the scene. Catherine’s son Theo (Caleb Cady) puts a cherry on this delightful dish as he intones a pure, haunting “Corner of the Sky.” I loved the sweetness with a hint of conviction that didn’t have to be conveyed by volume. Well done.
There is lots of fun stuff going on here, led by Jaya as the Leading Player, who has all the right moves, voice and attitude to give his character command of the stage. His “Right Track” with Pippin at the start of Act II executes Ryan Cappelman’s choreography to a tee.
There are plenty of creative moves executed well by the Players, especially the really cool scene with Pippin and the twirlers. Bob Fosse's "Manson Trio" in the battle sequence is beautifully handled by Jaya, Jordan Levene and Bree Kazinski, who also towered over all in scenes as a stilt walker, looking totally comfortable with her extended height.
Zablocki is an animated Pippin, who appears all in white, and with white face, as a mime. All characters are heavily made up, especially their eyes, to give them a stagey effect, sometimes clownlike. Zablocki has the right demeanor for Pippin, a character that I think resembles Seymour in “Little Shop of Horrors”—a sort of mousy fellow searching for recognition. I especially enjoyed his scenes with his father such as “Welcome Home,” in which the two clearly are not on the same wavelength. Vocally, Zablocki has a somewhat thin voice that seemed a stretch on the higher notes but worked fine in tunes like “Extraordinary,” which would be a good description of his dancing and movement.
Miller is a wonderful choice for Pippin’s father, Charlemagne, handling “War is a Science” with a nice comic touch as he delightfully describes the savagery of battle. Travia’s Lewis is also well done. His red and white striped outfit, exaggerated hirsute features and height, and camp portrayal are welcome touches. Fastrada and Sprangers also deliver fine performances and vocals.
Music director Cathy Pfeiler gets good performances from all soloists and the seven-piece orchestra, but the ensemble numbers couldn’t fill the Lunt-Fontanne Theater at UW-Waukesha with nearly as much sound as at the more intimate Lake Country Playhouse.
Yet, this certainly is a successful collaboration between the two companies.
If you go
Who: Lake Country Playhouse and UW-Waukesha
When: Through Aug. 26
Where: UW-Waukesha Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 1500 N. University Drive, Waukesha