BWW Review: PIPPIN at Mercury Theater's Venus Cabaret
Cue the jazz hands--Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson's PIPPIN has arrived at Mercury Theater's Venus Cabaret in an intimate staging that brings the actors and the audience together. Mercury Artistic Director L. Walter Stearns's interprets this cabaret production of PIPPIN in a literal manner: the show's visual references and presentational style are highly influenced by the 1920s Weimar cabaret in Germany. Thus, the fictional story of Charlemagne's son Pippin does not at all take place in medieval times but rather seems to occupy a moment all its own. Given the eccentricities in the material for PIPPIN itself, this is a fitting choice.
I've always found PIPPIN to be an unwieldy musical, and Stearns's directional choices don't quite solve the issue of the musical's wildly erratic shifts in tone. PIPPIN's meant to be lively and fun while also dark and dastardly at the same time, combining more emotional moments with a Brechtian style that occasionally breaks the fourth wall. Stearns's direction sometimes lacks specificity that ties this all together; at points, the actors seem to flit about the stage (and the entire venue) with no sense of ultimate destination.
Though the production values are modest, the choices thoroughly anchor us in the 1920s cabaret world of this staging. Rachel Boylan's costumes outfit the ensemble in cheeky black-and-white pieces, and Dustin L. Derry's lighting punctuates each moment of the action. While aside from a few trunks there's not much set to speak of, PIPPIN visually relies on G. "Max" Mazin IV's on-the-nose projections to move the audience through time and location; these projections are rather pointed. Music director Eugene Dizon leads a group of three musicians in a way such that we would not wish for more; all the musical beats in PIPPIN are present and enjoyable. Brenda Didier's dynamic choreography sends up Bob Fosse's original work for PIPPIN, and she knows how to highlight those in the cast who have the strongest dancing skills.
Due to the intimacy of the venue, the success of this PIPPIN really comes down to the players. They sell the musical's inherent strengths for all they're worth. Donterrio Johnson is a commanding Leading Player. He charms the audience, but he's also consistently foreboding and keeps the other actors in the show far from the vest. He's also vocally among the strongest of the cast, though some mic troubles on opening night kept the first few notes of the famous "Magic To Do" from being heard by all in the audience. This is no fault of Johnson's performance, however, and he made quick work of moving past the mishap. Johnson particularly shines in the act two opener "On the Right Track," where he brings tons of energy and focus to gear up for the show's second half.
As the title character, Koray Tarhan finds the balance between naïve and mischievous; he seems timid in some of the earlier numbers but comes to his own later in the show. Tarhan's take on "Extraordinary" shows us exactly how Pippin's innocence isn't really so innocent after all. Tarhan succeeds because he plays into Pippin's youthfulness and lack of experience, while also demonstrating that this is a character who knows when he's making bad choices.
Iris Lieberman has a joyful turn as Pippin's grandmother Berthe, and Sawyer Smith is superb as Pippin's stepmother Fastrada (Smith is also one of the most magnificent dancers in this company). Nicole Armold makes fine work of the role of Catherine, and her delivery of "I Guess I'll Miss The Man" is every bit as lovely as it should be.
Mercury's production of PIPPIN has carved out an intimate "Corner of the Sky" that capitalizes on the show's musical strengths, while not necessarily smoothing over some of the more jagged edges in the narrative and writing. Still, the uniqueness of the staging will surely please any hard-core PIPPIN or classic musical fans.
PIPPIN plays Mercury Theater's Venus Cabaret through December 16. Tickets are $60-$65 (including appetizers and dessert). Visit MercuryTheaterChicago.com to purchase.
Photo Credit: Brett Beiner