Few Broadway shows are referred to as often and simultaneously as misunderstood as Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin. For the unfamiliar, it’s a musical about the real-world medieval figures of King Charlemagne and his son, Pippin, although what’s portrayed onstage has very little in common with world history. Pippin is a precocious, somewhat unwilling heir to the throne of his tyrannical father. After realizing he’s not made out for war, Pippin travels the land, trying on a variety of personalities and lifestyles until his morals and ambitions get the better of him.
What’s funny is, though I’ve technically described the plot in some detail, the musical has almost nothing to do with any of that. Rather, Pippin is really about its narrators, a fourth wall-breaking performance troupe full of characters who weave in and out of the musical as storytellers, audience, and figures in the plot. The more Pippin interacts with them – and particularly with the mysterious and hyperactive Leading Player – the more we get the sense that there is a discrepancy between Pippin: the royal heir and Pippin: the protagonist.
I may have said too much even with that – it’s a play best experienced without context, I think – but this bizarre push and pull between character and plot make for an ambiguous show that’s well-suited for multiple productions.
The Theatre Factory, a venue that is no stranger to the bold and unique, is the right kind of place to see Pippin, a musical practically begging to be taken apart and reconstructed over and over again. As far as reinventions go, I’m glad to say that Pippin is a show with a direction all its own, and that it possesses a youthful energy that breathes some life into the musical mainstay. That said, some issues in execution leave Pippin feeling somehow incomplete.
First thing’s first: director Matt Mlynarski has aesthetically reimagined the meta-medieval melodrama into a fun hodgepodge of 80’s high school filmmaking, safe-for-Broadway urbanity, and period piece. Think Grease meets Rent, meets John Hughes meets Shakespeare. If that descriptor seems like nonsense, that’s because it kind of is, and that’s ok. Pippin is all about messy textual interweaving.
I like what the stage design does, but I can’t help but wish it went further. Much of the cast simply wears typical street clothes – flannels, jeans, t-shirts etc. – but important characters get the distinction of multi-purpose outfits, which are a mixed bag. The best example that comes to mind is the outfit of Alec Albright’s Leading Player. Arguably the most important character in the show, the Leading Player needs to stand out, but the white tee-shirt he’s wearing – which sports large printed paint splotches in every color of the rainbow streaming down the middle – along with Pippin’s ripped-at-the-sleeves tweed jacket, both set against a constructed alleyway decorated with #graffiti, make the show look more High School Musical than is likely intended.
The cast is consistent and performs well. Sean O’Donnell feels like a natural fit in the titular lead role regardless of which stage of life his character is in, Sabrina Picciani has natural comedic edge as the crafty Fastrada, and I had a lot of fun with Rebekah Lecocq’s over the top Berthe. Albirght’s Leading Player is possibly the show’s most notable performance, as he exudes this great subdued malice beneath the frenetic energy of a showrunner, which perfectly fits the role.
That said, some of Pippin’s vocal performances can at times feel uneven. Although the choreography is playful, inventive, and maybe of more import than the actual singing, this is a musical, and nothing removes the energy of a show faster than issues with vocal range.
I have a substantive problem with the musical itself, too. I really like watching the way the narrative plays with reality, and meshes the struggle of self-discovery and unfound ambition until they are one in the same conflict, but about half of the first act is dedicated to Pippin learning a foregone conclusion – he’s not fit for the military. This sequence includes the show’s least interesting songs and a lengthy battle sequence. There are so few conceivable, practical ways to make a medieval swordfight look interesting in the context of a musical. You can only see someone be dance-stabbed so many times before you want to hit fast-forward. Instead of the show starting out running, this sequence forces it to start out in an awkward shuffle.
The Theatre Factory’s production of Pippin is worth checking out, especially if the show hasn’t been on your radar up to now, but its sometimes off-kilter design may put off some returning fans.
Pippin runs at The Theatre Factory in Trafford through July 23. Their website is currently under construction so you can check out their Facebook page here for more information.