Tag Archives: Stephen Schwartz

“Pippin” at the Charing Cross Theatre

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.

Genevieve Nicole in Pippin
Genevieve Nicole

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.

Ryan Anderson in Pippin
Ryan Anderson

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

“Pippin” at the Garden Theatre

More than a little mad, Stephen Schwartz’s musical, ostensibly about the son of Emperor Charlemagne, has a big revival in this small-scale venue.

This new version of the phenomenal hit has a cast of six who create a band-of-players feel that, along with the traverse staging, suits the setting. And director Steven Dexter hits the mark creating hippy vibes: dating from 1972, the show is very much of its time.

Ryan Anderson does a lovely job with the score’s main theme and its clever love song, where he is joined by Tanisha-Mae Brown making a strong professional debut. Anderson’s Pippin also manages some character development (no small achievement in this role) from awkward to angry – well done.

Tanisha-Mae Brown, Tsemaye Bob-Egbe and Ryan Anderson in Pippin
Tanisha-Mae Brown, Tsemaye Bob-Egbe and Ryan Anderson

Anderson may take the lead, but the production’s sextet works especially well together. They seem like they’re having fun! The cast’s skills show Nick Winston’s choreography superbly, impressive work for such an intimate space.

Pippin has great tunes and smart enough lyrics. The cast do well with the humour (which in truth is one note) aided by jokes about the lo-fi staging and theatre under current conditions. Joanne Clifton deserves special mention for camping it up as Pippin’s gran and his stepmother.

While Dexter has done well, it’s still hard to really get involved with this “anecdotal review”. Pippin’s search for fulfilment is exposed with deep cynicism – fair enough – but the self-conscious storytelling isn’t as clever as it would like and ends up feeling frosty.

Thankfully, Anderson manages to inject some genuine emotion. And the show’s overbearing concepts, with the sinister idea that Pippin is being manipulated, are in the capable hands of Tsemaye Bob-Egbe who performs as the Lead Player; her excellent voice and commanding presence brings the whole show together.

Until 11 October 2020


Photos by Bonnie Britain

“Godspell” On Line, In Concert

This recorded concert, celebrating the 50th anniversary of a legendary show, boasts a special introduction from its composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz. Fans have the chance to hear some great new performances from a strong cast. And it’s all in aid of good causes: Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, Acting For Others and the National AIDS Trust.

I’m not a huge admirer of the piece, but there are plenty of good songs. While Schwartz knows variety is needed, both in style and emotional tempo, there aren’t enough stand-out numbers in a score that’s a little too easy on the ear. Thankfully, there’s no sense that any of the performers share my reservations. Among the West End stars assembled, it’s great to see and hear talents such as Alison Jiear, Jenna Russell and Sam Tutty. George Carter’s musical direction is of the highest quality.

Director Michael Strassen tries hard to tackle the fluid nature of the song cycle format. While original productions presented parables, here inserts reveal abstract concepts of what the songs are ‘about’: Prepare, Hope, Faith, even Class. The approach provides some structure but conflicts with the inclusion of photographs from the present day, mostly of care workers, that feel proscriptive. And Godspell’s religious content is strangely absent. It takes a while to remember that John-Michael Tebelak’s book is loosely based on the Gospel story. As a result, Darren Day’s emotive performance as Jesus ends up disconnected and rather odd.

Although a smaller problem, the performers are not helped by the video work in this production. The variety of backgrounds is nice, but the split scenes, phone screens (of course) and graphics are frequently, well, naff. Especially disappointing is their intrusion in Ruthie Henshall’s number, Turn Back, O Man, performed in the bath! With a rubber duck on board, we don’t need bubbles added – the performance alone is enough.

Another notable exception – some humour – comes with a fine performance from Ria Jones of Learn Your Lessons Well. Otherwise, the tone is earnest, dry even. Plenty of effort is made to inject energy (Jiear is especially good at this) but as a collection of short films, momentum never takes off. Much of this is not Strassen’s fault – it’s a reflection of the show itself. While it always sounds top notch, the piece is downright monotonous.

Until 29th August 2020


“The Prince of Egypt” at the Dominion Theatre

There’s plenty of theatre aimed at younger audiences that everyone can enjoy. This musical about Moses is not one of them. It’s a right royal disaster.

The show succeeds in its painfully clear aim of being big and bold. And, while running with the alliteration would be fun, it isn’t boring – Scott Schwartz’s swift direction prevents that. Actually, it’s just bad.

Problems come from a dependence on the show’s origin as an animated film. Projections, from Jon Driscoll, are impressive but overused and only reinforce how everything about The Prince of Egypt is two-dimensional.

Luke Brady is instructed to give us a modern Moses and he delivers. But the character is flat and his development paper thin. The focus on his adoptive family, the Egyptian Pharaohs, isn’t a bad move. But, accompanied by a pantomime High Priest and some confusing costumes (Ann Hould-Ward), what should be a major role for Liam Tamne, as Ramses, is simply a sketch.

Luke Brady and Christine Allado in The Prince Of Egypt
Luke Brady and Christine Allado

It’s good that women are brought to the forefront of the story. But Moses’ sister Miriam and his wife Tzipporah are further missed opportunities – another shame as Christine Allado and Alexia Khadime are exciting performers. The former just acts delighted every time she bumps into her brother and starts singing about deliverance without any preamble. Mrs Moses bangs on about freedom in a cartoonish costume.

Composer Stephen Schwartz has an impressive back catalogue and is the show’s big selling point, but his work here is lacklustre. These are songs you forget before they’ve even finished. And the score is horribly repetitive: anthems and ballads merge, dripping with sentiment and cliché. Every number has an unfailingly loud end. It’s enough to make you wonder if the Jews went into desert for a bit of peace and quiet.

The only thing worse than the lyrics, which ram home predictable rhymes relentlessly, is when people speak. The dialogue by Philip LaZebnik is awful. Take: “If you don’t choose your own path, you’re lost wherever you go.” Who knew self-help books were popular in Ancient Egypt?

The Prince Of Egypt, credit Tristram Kenton ©DWA LLC
The burning bush appears to Moses

Possibly to distract from all this, The Prince of Egypt is very much a dance show. Burning bushes and bloody rivers keep a crack squad of athletes impressively busy. But choreographer Sean Cheesman isn’t the miracle this show badly needs. Right from the start, with a bunch of very healthy-looking Hebrew slaves, the execution is excellent. But each trick is repeated too often. I guess there’s only so many ways you can move around fake stones artistically, but I’m pretty sure I’ve now seen them all.

The few attempts to inject humour are dire. And the tone overall is portentous and grates quickly. Having a Moses for a modern age fails. That the prophet has a crisis of faith and is confused about his identity is interesting. But the show hasn’t the depth to explore either. Moses even refers to God’s “magic” at one point. Bizarrely, religion is pushed to the side. The oft repeated hit number for the show, ‘(There can be miracles) when you believe’ – those self-help books again – becomes a nonsense. It’s never really clear what Moses, of all people, believes in.

Until 31 October 2020


Photos by Tristram Kenton and Matt Crockett

“Wicked” at the Apollo Victoria

Blockbusting musical Wicked has now been running in London for seven years. The ‘untold’ story of the witches of Oz has been heard many times. There’s a danger with a show this big, and technical, that it becomes too mechanical – more like a fairground ride than a piece of theatre. The arrival of Jennifer DiNoia in the role of Elphaba, the witch who becomes ‘wicked’, injects a fantastic energy into the show that makes this a great time to see it.

Gregory Maguire’s prequel to the Wizard of Oz is a strong idea; a clever, playful twist on a story most of us have a connection with. Giving the famous characters more depth ensures strong material for the musical, and its book by Winnie Holzman, to work with. And there’s a satisfyingly moral content. Elphaba is bullied for being different, succeeds through hard work and refuses to accept the fascist state the Wizard has made of Oz – good girl. There are plenty of intelligent in-jokes and a fresh cynicism that appeals to adults in the audience – it has a fairy tale setting, but Wicked is the Pixar of musicals.

Stephen Schwartz’ score isn’t one of my favourites, but the songs that detail the relationship between Elphaba and Glenda, the good witch, are superb. DiNoia’s performance is rousing and Savannah Stevenson, as Glenda, does a great job with her big hit, Popular. The lyrics are the most uneven thing – some smart and funny but many predictable – nowadays making the Prince Charming character “deeply shallow” is predictable. It’s the production itself that makes the show, with fantastic sets by Eugene Lee, costumes by Susan Hilferty and wigs from Tom Watson; all creating a convincing world that’s worth escaping to – or from, of course, if your name is Dorothy… but that’s another story.


Photo by Matt Crockett

“Pippin” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

As its history of transfers to the West End and Broadway demonstrates, The Menier Chocolate Factory has an enviable reputation when it comes to musical theatre. This is a team that knows what it’s doing and their new production of Pippin confirms just that. If ‘updating’ a story about the son of ninth century Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne into the computer game era sounds mad, fair enough. But it works to perfection.

The 1972 piece by Stephen Schwartz, now famous for his success with Wicked, follows the eponymous hero’s quest for a meaning in life. Pippin’s efforts to lose himself in fighting, sex or politics, are presented as levels in a computer game. Along the way he is accompanied by the sinister ‘Leading Player’, constantly nodding at a metanarrative that sits happily with the new production’s conceit.

Credit goes to Director Mitch Sebastian’s confidence and determination to follow the idea through. From the zapping noises that greet the audience upon arrival, to the faces of texting monks lit up in the gloom, there’s such attention to detail you can’t help be impressed. Best of all is Sebastian’s decision to base his choreography on the original work by the legendary Bob Fosse. It is the core of the show: bold, articulate and wonderful to watch.

Using computer games to add a ‘boys own’ feel to the show allows designer Timothy Bird’s imagination to run riot with projections as witty as they are dazzling. Similarly, Jean-Marc Puissant’s crazy costumes – part Visigoth, part Tron – are something you won’t forget in a hurry. This is a sexed-up Pippin with an intelligent eye for the crass aesthetics of adolescence.

Harry Hepple’s performance as the lead is commendable. With more than a touch of self-pity Pippin’s search to stop feeling “empty and vacant” often seems indulgent but Hepple manages to retain our sympathy and his voice is great. Hepple doesn’t even get a break in the interval as he continues to play his computer game in the corridor as the audience files past. Frances Rufelle’s rendition of Spread of Little Sunshine is revelatory and there is an outstanding performance from Louise Gold as Pippin’s “still attractive” grandmother that is a genuine crowd pleaser.

Pippin is very much a musical lovers’ musical. You need to be able to laugh at lines like, “it’s better in a song”, as well as adoring catsuits and jazzhands. While Schwartz can write a good tune and a serviceable lyric, providing plenty to hum on the way home, much of Pippin is so firmly rooted in the 70s it can be painful. Unusually it is Sebastian and his cast that should get the credit, transforming a musical that could be damned with faint praise into a fantastic night out.

Until 25 February 2012


Photo by Tristram Kenton

Written 8 December 2011 for The London Magazine