There is a great deal of talent and creativity behind Pennington Players’ production of PIPPIN, but it is not always used to its best advantage in telling this musical fable about a young man’s search for fulfillment and meaning in his life.
The now-classic musical – with a score by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Roger O. Hirson – follows the fictionalized exploits of the real Prince Pippin, eldest son of the powerful King Charlemagne (Charles, in this case). Curious how he fits into his father’s empire and unsure of what he wants to do in life, Pippin sets out to find his place and his purpose in the world…and tries just about everything along the way.
Being a piece of musical theatre from the early 1970s, Schwartz, Hirson and original director/choreographer/collaborator Bob Fosse brought forth a work filled with anachronisms and utilizing a show-within-a-show format as a band of itinerant “players” enact the story of Pippin.
Directed by Frank Ferrara, the Pennington Players take on the material has a dark, sexy but playful tone with a hint of circus-y atmosphere in a mash-up of elements that included commedia make-up, Cirque du Soleil touches and sleek contemporary styling.
On opening night, at least, that mixture didn’t always gel. There were wonderful ideas involved in the approach, but the flow and pace were not always smooth or consistent. Added moments of “shtick” were funny on their own, but many times they overshadowed the “heart” beating inside this story (particularly in scenes between Pippin and the woman he comes to know, Catherine). The dancing and musical staging were performed with skill and style, but the choreography wasn’t always as strong in telling this story; for example, it too often displayed the ability of the very talented actor playing Pippin rather than serving the attitude and style of the character/characterization. The set was a simple collection of moveable box-like puzzle pieces continuously reconfigured in various ways, but the movement of these pieces too often seemed either excessive, extraneous or awkward. The lighting created a strong sense of mood and tone, but lacked sharpness in execution.
The cast, however, was generally excellent, filled with talent and energy and a nice sense of these characters. As Pippin, Dominick Sannelli brought a strong presence, exceptional dancing and a beautiful voice to the role. There were moments, though, when it appeared the actor came through too much: when dancing and at times seeming a bit too self-aware/worldly/wise for who Pippin is established as being. Kyrus Keenan Westcott was sharp, poised and charming as the Leading Player, the “ringmaster” of sorts who guides Pippin on his journey. Westcott was a smooth operator, performing with effortless grace, a knowing smirk, solid vocal chops and effectively incorporating nods to the dancing of Michael Jackson.
Among the stand-outs in the rest of the cast, Tom Bessellieu created a strong and funny Charles; Jaime Geddes was a hilariously slithery seductress as Fastrada, Pippin’s conniving stepmother; and Alison McMullen added a spirited sensibility and practical charm to the role of Catherine, the “love interest” who alters the course of Pippin’s journey. As Pippin’s grandmother, Berthe, Eve Connolly was sweet, but needed a bit more “vaudeville” in her delivery; J Scott was a whirlwind as Pippin’s stepbrother, Lewis, but could have used a bit more focus; and Dasha Eisenhauer did well as Catherine’s son, Theo, but was directed to swing wildly from endearing to bitchy. They were all aided by an energetic and engaged ensemble of players (with special recognition going to Daniel Golazeski for his fine, enthusiastic work).
And finally, kudos to musical director Shannon Ferrara for her excellent work in bringing this very familiar score to life, getting great performances from the singers AND the sharp band playing the show.
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, Book by Roger O. Hirson
Directed by Frank Ferrara
September 7 – 18, 2012
@ Kelsey Theatre
Mercer County Community College
1200 Old Trenton Road
West Windsor, NJ