PIPPIN presented by The Carnegie and Commonwealth Theatre Company through Sept. 3. You can read the show description here. For this performance I was seated on the first floor of the theater, near the back, underneath the second floor balcony.
In the musical number “Love Song,” Pippin and Catherine sing, “They say the whole is greater than the sum of the parts it’s made of…” unfortunately for me, this cannot be said for this production of PIPPIN. The individual elements of the production don’t mesh, and in some cases actually work against each other.
Possibly due to a strenuous tech week; aside from the performances of Deb G. Girdler as Berthe and to a lesser extent, Brooke Rucidlo as Catherine, the show lacked energy and emotion.
The main reason for this complaint is that the actors were not performing to the back of the house. In extreme cases, they seemed more concerned with performing to each other on stage, instead of performing to the audience. Vocal solos sounded fine, but they lacked any kind of emotional punch. Many times, the actor simply stood on stage and sang at the audience. The easy fix – sing out, sell it, and use you entire body in your performances. This is especially true for leads Pippin and Leading Player.
The score for PIPPIN is one of my favorites in musical theater. There are multiple times in the score where you should get goosebumps from the vocals. The ending of “Magic to Do,” “Morning Glow” and “Finale” immediately come to mind. Opening night, the only time that came close was the end of the curtain call.
The too-dimly lit lighting design credited to Mark C. Williams, only added to the problems. It is extremely hard to become invested in a performance when you can’t see the actors’ faces. It wasn’t until Berthe’s number that I realized the male chorus members had make-up designs on their faces.
The costume design by Jeff Shearer also left me extremely confused. The male and female ensemble costumes didn’t seem to be related to each other. The women’s costumes were two pieces with exposed mid-drifts, arms and legs. The male costumes nearly completely covered them (except for a few shirtless performers) with asymmetric, mixed, strong, patterns. I’m still trying to figure out the purpose of the contrasting-color codpieces several of the men sported.
Crossing into the lead’s costumes, things really get confusing. Pippin is dressed in dark blue pants and a white shirt, the latter easily gets lost in the sea of white and cream the male ensemble wears. The same can be said for Berthe’s off-white shawl. Catherine appears in a too-pink and bedazzled gypsy-looking dress. The flat color choices of a grey shirt and brown pants used for the Leading Player blends him into the darkness on stage. Fastrada’s costume, in contrast to those of the women ensemble, contained so much material it buried any movement or choreography in flowing fabric. Lewis’ robin egg blue roman skirt ensemble would get a designer sent home on Project Runway.
Jane Green and Jay Goodlett provided the choreography. The bigger production numbers never seemed to build in intensity. “With You” begins with Pippin singing as the female ensemble dances. Strangely for a song that leads into an “orgy” it takes forever for Pippin and the women to actually touch each other. During the dance segment that follows, the number fails to build to an appropriate (dance) climax.
Also questionable is the decision to dance the duet “On the Right Track” on top of the closed stage curtain. As the number proceeds, the taller Leading Player is blocked downstage of the shorter Pippin. The result is the actors are dancing face to face with the Leading Players’ back to the audience and their view of Pippin blocked. Another problem plaguing the Leading Players’ choreography/blocking was that it existed only in extremes. Either it was too much hand and body-gesturing to hit the music beats or practically non-existent.
Sound execution was also problematic opening night. Several late queues and uneven levels occurred over the course of the performance.
There were other decisions peppered throughout the performance that didn’t make sense to me. During “Glory” the sound of metal weapons hitting each other is added to the number. Perhaps this idea would have worked if the sounds had match the percussion of the song. It becomes too heavy-handed with the addition of the sounds of modern warfare.
During the orgy scene, a female ensemble member comes out dressed as a cowgirl complete with a six shooter. A little extra thought could have found of an element that better fit the show. Several comic moments that already exist in the script are overlooked, instead relying on dated and often no-so-funny shtick for a quick laugh.
So if you have gotten this far in the review, you probably are under the impression that I hated the show. In actuality, I’m disappointed that the show didn’t gel for me and I’m trying to explain why. It seems like the costumes, the choreography and the lighting design were done independently with no collaboration of how these three elements would interact. No discussion on how the lighting effects the costume fabrics or how the costumes effect the choreography. No unifying vision to connect these dots into a satisfying picture.
Bottom line for me, PIPPIN was more extra ordinary than extraordinary.
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