Friday, February 5, 2010

The Meaning of Life: Playhouse mounts a zippin' PIPPIN

Posted By on Fri, Feb 5, 2010 at 11:05 AM

As proud as I am of Playhouse on the Square for defying conventional wisdom and building an extraordinary new theater in the heart of Midtown I've got to make a confession. I'm no great fan of the show that's been chosen to open the new space. I understand why Playhouse's Executive Producer Jackie Nichols has described Pippin as "the right play at the right time." Its themes mesh perfectly with the theater's mission and the anti-war sentiments expressed in the first act are consistent with a company that has roots in the 1960's and the balls to open Hair in the aftermath of 9/11. It's also technically ideal, perfect for showing off the new theaters capabilities but minimal enough to give the technical staff some breathing room as they transition into the new space. So I'm not going to complain. Well, not much.

Fact is, I don't care for a lot of concept musicals from the early 1970's and could live a full life without ever having to sit through another production of Godspell. Of all these acid-inspired theatricals Pippin is the most ambitions and the most convoluted. The book—a scattershot epic by Roger O. Hirson—tells the story of a young, educated prince trying to find his place in a dumb confusing world. It's a disjointed often hokey fable that goes in too many directions at once but is held together by Stephen Schwartz's cohesive soft rock score. Warning: If you shudder when people start singing about soaring eagles and rambling rivers this may not be the show for you. But see it anyway—trust me—because Playhouse on the Square's production benefits greatly from an exceptional cast and Scott Ferguson's inventive and whimsical approach to the material.

It's unlikely that you'll ever hear me disparage a show where Irene Crist dances through a forrest kissing trees, where severed limbs fly through the air and pile up center stage, and where jet fighters streak through the sky. Although his Pippin may rely too heavily on projection at times Ferguson understands better than almost any director I've ever encountered that audiences respond best when you ask them to engage their imagination rather than to suspend their disbelief. And this Pippin—though no less fragmented and dopey than any other production of the show—is all about the imagination.

Chicago actor Sean Blake brings the right combination of playfulness and menace to his role as the Leading Player. Alvaro Francisco, in his best performance yet, makes Pippin a frustrated mix of wonder, discontent, and yearning. Kent Fleshman is appropriately bombastic as the Emperor Charlemagne and Kim Baker exudes a down to earth suburban charm as Pippin's love interest. The show's best moments however belong to Crist who engages directly with the audience in a bawdy number suggesting that the meaning of life is more sensual than intellectual and can only be discovered by living. So live a little. Treat your senses to a truly sensual feast. You really don't have to love this show to feel good about it.

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