Among the many devotees of Stephen Schwartz’s musical, originally written in 1967, director Steven Dexter is an expert. Having staged the show at a pop-up venue last year (a boon between lockdowns), Dexter is back with his hippie-inspired version of the piece. Bigger and just as accomplished, this intelligent take on the Summer of Love does Pippin proud.
I’m still not a fan of the show. Yes, it has great songs. Although the score is contrived. And Roger O. Hirson’s book has wit, even if the humour is dated. But this story of Charlemagne’s son, presented by ‘Players’ who form a show within a show, is a tricky affair: a cautionary tale too close to reactionary in its suspicion of dreams and ambition.
Any reservations aren’t shared by Dexter or his eight energetic cast members. Akin to Pippin’s search for meaning, this production has a “goal and a plan”. And it is well executed. More serious than you might expect, considering the Players’ promises of what we are about to see, the production has more magic than merriment. Take the performance of Ian Carlyle, who makes for a sinister and in-command Lead Player, there’s an appropriately dark edge to proceedings.
With strong performances from the (not-so-well-written) women in Pippin’s life, we are never allowed to forget they are Players, too. The effect is cold. Genevieve Nicole gets the most out of her big number – she’s super as Pippin’s let-it-all-hang-out grandma. While Gabrielle Lewis-Dodson as the stepmother manipulates events at court in style. It’s only Natalie McQueen, as Catherine, who really cares for our hero and makes the show’s sweet love song, with lots of laughs, enjoyable.
The big danger is that Pippin himself becomes something of a puppet. Arguably he is exactly that and Dexter makes the case forcefully. And, who really likes Pippin anyway? Schwartz wanted him to check his privilege half a century ago! More credit to the show’s lead, Ryan Anderson, who get as much sympathy as he can for the character. Genuine emotion comes late (the penny drops – that’s why I’m not a fan) and, when it arrives, Anderson does well.
It is with dancing that Anderson, and the whole cast, excel. Choreographer Nick Winston comes into his own with smart moves, superbly executed. Engaging with each song, adding depth and interest, there’s extraordinary insight into the characters. Winston’s work sculpts the roles. With a nice big space, staged in the round, the dancing is the most joyous part of the show and, too frequently, the most emotional. It’s with the movement in the production that this Pippin moves.
Until 14 August 2021
Photos by Edward Johnson