BWW Review: PIPPIN at The Firehouse Theater
Firehouse Theater once again takes a bite of a huge show with Pippin - and though at time it felt like more than the space was prepared to chew, some great comedic timing and a strong supporting cast make the evening a fun one.
Pippin is a hard show to get right. Originally conceived by Stephen Schwartz back in the early 70s at Carnegie Mellon, the show we know now has gone through many, many iterations. This is simply because, in some ways, it's a mess. The text tells the somewhat historical story of Pippin, the first son of Charlemagne (who did indeed have a real son named Pepin), as he seeks for something "extraordinary." The play models itself heavily on cyclic journey narratives, reminiscent of Dante or Boccaccio's respective epics, as an educated and slightly skeptical protagonist travels through a series of places in search of something greater. Enter stage right: existential crisis. Pippin tries to find fulfillment in war, like his father and brother. When that fails, he looks to politics and power, that too leaves him numb. He finds sex: no dice. He looks for a myriad of trades and aspects of life, and eventually finds his way to a sleepy estate and finds love - which he will abandon again, as it does not seem truly extraordinary. Only in the face of death does he realize that what he wanted all along has already passed him by: the only moments he was happy were in the very seeking of something greater. It is indeed not the destination, but the journey - however ordinary and unglamorous, that the Pippin realizes was worthwhile.
With this through line, it's easy for the show to take a wrong turn - confronting existentialism isn't easy, if it was we wouldn't still keep Walden on bookshelves. For Pippin to work in this way, it has to stay light and in many ways joyous in tone, since the theme is already slightly sardonic and heavy. This is why it lent itself to Fosse and diegetic vaudevillian staging back in the day; this is the same reason the show lent itself to the Diane Paulus's creative circus in the 2013 revival. Firehouse takes inspiration from the latter, setting the show within the space of a circus - and though the show is colorful and brimming with talent, it doesn't hold the same energy that makes Pippin's journey one of growth and the thesis/finale introspective yet optimistic.
Pippin is led by a pretty young core, with recent high-schoolers Morgan Amalbert and Will Carleton taking on the Leading Player and Pippin respectively. Amalbert portrayal is clearly inspired by Patina Miller's Tony-winning stint, though unfortunately I think she was singing the score as originally written for Ben Vereen (equally as fabulous) all those decades ago. Amalbert's timing and improvisation bring some of the genuinely funniest moments in the show, but she never got the chance to take off vocally. The written score felt too low for her, though she handles it well, and I could tell every time she riffed up a little to her upper range that she had a lot more to offer. Carleton's Pippin is earnest, and he does indeed take on the role, which almost never leaves the stage, with vigor. That being said, the role of Pippin is notoriously hard to sing, let alone act - existentialism isn't exactly loaded with givens and motivation. Carleton gives Pippin a solid swing; both the vocal reaching and somewhat incomplete nuance to Pippin's moral growth left me wanting a bit more.
The supporting cast touts a great Berthe (Andi Allen) who knows just how to interact with her audience, a Charlemagne played exactly as he is meant to be (Dan Servetnick), an eager though again slightly un-nuanced Catherine (Cayley Nicole Davis), and a Fastrada who despite clear vocal chops seemed a bit young for the role (Kim Borge Swarner). All held their respective scenes well, dominating most of them with ease and commanding more than a few laughs.
The ensemble stands out too, especially compared to other Pippins I've seen. For the size of the show, I was not at all expecting the amount of Aerial and circus work they worked in, and was pleasantly surprised. If anything, I return here to the space. Firehouse is small. They do a lot with the space they have. But with only a few feet between the audience and the stage (that can't be more than 12 feet deep), fitting a company of 25 on stage is a lot. The recent Broadway production in the Music Box had a smaller company - and that theatre fits over a thousand. No, the Firehouse certainly uses their space creatively, but attempting to follow Diane Paulus's Brechtian vision (having the ensemble often ever-present) resulted in a crowded and at times distracting stage. Much of the ensemble shines. Player Bethany Lorentzen has a solo in the "Finale," and dang that girl has a voice: the single best moment of music in the show: I physically turned my body in my seat to see where it was coming from.
The show is designed well, with strong lighting for such a small space and costumes that are detailed and fun to look at (Scott Davis and Victor Newman Brockwell respectively). Somehow Brockwell managed to wig every woman on stage, some more successful than others but nonetheless impressive - applause is due. Choreography by ensemble member Christina Kudlicki Hoth is fitting, and at times appropriately reverential to the Fosse; I appreciate that she chose not to stick to the book across the board. This too, unfortunately, suffers from the size of the stage. Sound design in that space is tricky as well, and I often found myself questioning why the show was mic'ed at all. The orchestra is ambitious, with just a keyboard, drum kit, and a "wind synthesizer" - Schwartz is a pop writer, true, but his arrangements are still pretty heavily orchestrated. I look forward to seeing a show at Firehouse with more fleshed out instrumentation. Kelly Schaaf's music direction does shine, though, in the ensemble vocals - the harmonies never faltered from clarity and strength.
Firehouse's Pippin is ambitious. The team and ensemble give it their all, and it was a definitively fun night for the audience. Derek Whitener's show has a lot of ideas, some of them great and others a bit derived - though there are so many good ones you hardly notice. At large, the show is a colorful and family-friendly (at worst the show edges toward PG-13) play. The dramaturge in me, though, is left wanting for a stronger acted, more evolved and layered depiction of a man on a journey of self-discovery. I almost wonder: with an ensemble half the size and with half of the spectacle, would the message have come across more? The production almost seems to quote the final lines of the original production: "I feel trapped, but happy."
Pippin runs through August 20th at the Firehouse Theater in Farmer's Branch. For information and tickets, look for Firehouse at http://www.thefirehousetheatre.com/.