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Review: PIPPIN Spreads Sunshine, Bringing the Party to West Hartford at Playhouse On Park

Review: PIPPIN Spreads Sunshine, Bringing the Party to West Hartford at Playhouse On Park

Now on stage at Playhouse on Park

Beloved 1972 musical, Pippin, has Magic to Do just for West Hartford. Playhouse on Park, a cute little theater that I must have passed by a hundred times and never noticed, is putting on a delightful production of Pippin from July 6 - August 21st. With book by Roger O. Hirson, music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, and choreography by Bob Fosse, Pippin opened on Broadway to critical acclaim, receiving 15 award nominations, culminating in 5 Tony Awards and 5 Drama Desk Awards (1973). The 2013 revival more than doubled that count and was a huge hit.

Stephen Schwartz has reworked and rewritten the beloved Pippin many times over the years and Playhouse on Park's unique interpretation is fun and fresh. Directed and choreographed by Darlene Zoller with music direction by Colin Britt, Pippin is a party!

Protagonist Pippin and his father, King Charlemagne, are characters based on real people from the Middle Ages. Though that's as far as the historical accuracy goes, it's a fun fact nevertheless. Staged as a play-within-a-play, the company portrays a performance troupe ("The Players") and alters between presentationally breaking the fourth wall and investing in real scenes of the story.

"The Setting: Any Time, Any lace, - Perhaps Right Inside Your Head." Young prince Pippin has just graduated from university and searches for true happiness and fulfillment. First, he tries to find it on the battlefield, then by way of carnal pursuits, followed by achieving political power. In the end, though, Pippin find that happiness lies not in extraordinary endeavors, but rather by seemingly little moments of everyday life.

The theater has an unorthodox setup: a square stage with seating on three sides, separated from the audience by a border of half walls and big columns. When I attended the matinee, our small audience was all clustered onto the center for the best view, though it was obstructed at times. When the orchestra began to warm up, the Leading Player (Thao Nguyen) and players greeted the audience, putting an entertaining spin on the typical pre-show announcements.

We were drawn in from the opening, which starts in pure darkness and illuminates as each player opens a book filled with light (apt foreshadowing). With constant movement and endless interest, it's an intriguing start. As theater geeks who knew the Pippin revival, my friend and I were initially taken aback by the generous ad-libbing, but quickly embraced director and choreographer, Darlene Zoller's, unique and clever vision. Playhouse on Park's Pippin aims to be different and achieves it. Zoller's great direction and creative interpretation is revealed in every little instance and scene change. My favorite moment had to be the slow motion battle with hilarious museum style narration. The nods to legendary choreographer, Bob Fosse, were both plentiful and welcomed all the while executed by terrific dancers. The iconic dance number (The Manson Trio) was done with bowler hats and beauty. The sexy between-the-sheets number (pun intended - you'll see) achieved a dreamlike, yet hazy feel and livened the stage.

The cast is phenomenal! The ensemble was filled with energy and heart, and they made every small moment feel big: When Dalton Bertolone played an adorable peasant who just couldn't catch a break, we were fully invested!

The company's dancing was incredible and they really connected with the audience. Spoiler alert: In the finale, the players turn to the audience and plead for someone to replace Pippin on stage. They were so convincing and held fast, leaving me wondering if we should really give it a try! (I was lucky to connect with the cast afterward, who ensured me that there is a failsafe in case this were to happen.) The wonderful Players include:

Dalton Bertolone - Player/Dance Captain

Leyland Cockerl-Patrick

Rae Janeil

Teagan La'Shay

Oleode Oshotse

Stephanie Reuning-Scherer

Kristen Schoen-René

Julia Solecki

I especially enjoyed the Leading Player's unexpected one-liners and Thao Ngyuen was perfectly cast, delivering with sass, profound nuance, and an untouchable flair. Pippin (Shannon Cheong) is sweet, sincere, all the while is a great dancer with a clear, powerful belt. Together, they lead the story with talent galore.

The grandmother, Berthe (SuEllen Estey - Broadway: My Fair Lady at Lincoln Center) connected with the audience and gave us a wonderful memory during her iconic and poignantly funny song No Time at All. The players held up the lyrics for the audience and we loved singing along. On the last chorus, we accidentally joined in uninvited, surprising Berthe, who playfully scolded us. This delight was a reminder of how live theater is really, truly special.

For me, there were quite a few performers who especially stood out and I'm officially fan-girling:

Charlemagne's (Gene Choquette) War is A Science was a highlight, with the ensemble's percussive choreography accelerating and enhancing the number. Choquette has impeccable comedy timing and instinct, winning over the audience in seconds. The audience was so invested at The Chapel at Arles, I overheard a gentleman just two seats away from me, anxiously exclaim, "Oh no!" when he realized what was about to happen. A fellow audience member responded, "It'll be okay... Well, kinda!" Choquette's drawn out character death especially cracked us up. We were floored (pun intended) when he stayed on the floor all the way through intermission, not budging or shifting once.

Pippin's half-brother, Lewis (Brad Weatherford) makes an impressive acrobatic entrance and doesn't stop wowing us for a moment: Weatherford's brilliance shines with epic comedy timing that made laugh so hard I cried (and, at least twice, embarrassingly snorted), stealing scenes even when he's "just" a player. He is hysterical, creative, and nothing short of excellent.

Kate Wesler plays Pippin's evil stepmother, Fastrada, and balances the duality of a fantastic and sexy villain. She plays the warm and loving mother perfectly with a 1950s-esque Stepford wife persona, then unleashes to reveal her true nature with phenomenal dancing and brings the party.

Catherine, a widow who becomes Pippin's love interest in Act Two, is played by flawless triple threat, Juliana Lamia. Lamia is graceful, charismatic, and has a genuinely beautiful, pristine singing voice. She charms the audience from the start and absolutely lights up the stage.

Ryan Byrne plays two roles of note: As The Head (a fallen soldier, whose head is all that is left sticking out from the stage) and Theo (Catherine's son), Byrne's expressions are perfection and he's absolutely hilarious.

As music director, Colin Britt assembled a fantastic band who delivered a flawless performance.

Pippin is the final production in the Playhouse on Park 13th season and runs from July 6th - August 21st. Come for the show, stay for the great dancing, fun music, and comedy.

Review: PIPPIN Spreads Sunshine, Bringing the Party to West Hartford at Playhouse On Park Review: PIPPIN Spreads Sunshine, Bringing the Party to West Hartford at Playhouse On Park Review: PIPPIN Spreads Sunshine, Bringing the Party to West Hartford at Playhouse On Park Review: PIPPIN Spreads Sunshine, Bringing the Party to West Hartford at Playhouse On Park Review: PIPPIN Spreads Sunshine, Bringing the Party to West Hartford at Playhouse On Park

Review: PIPPIN Spreads Sunshine, Bringing the Party to West Hartford at Playhouse On Park

Photo credit: Meredith Longo



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