Los Angeles Theater Review: PIPPIN (DOMA Theater Company at the Hudson Backstage)

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by Tony Frankel on October 26, 2010

in Theater-Los Angeles

BEST BE SKIPPIN’ PIPPIN

I need to stop reading press releases and just go to review a show. A recent production of Oklahoma! announced a darker, grittier version which intrigued me enough to see it for the umpteenth time. The corn-fed musical turned out to be as dark as Deanna Durbin. Now comes the 1972 musical Pippin with a version by DOMA Theater Company which promises a “surreal and disturbing” version, “sinister & modern at the same time, and invites you to take part in a voyage that is the dark side of your mind and self-awareness.”

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Again, I was intrigued. Roger O. Hirson’s libretto about a prince searching for fulfillment in the kingdom of his father, Charlemagne, is a mite trite and constructed like Children’s Theatre (although clearly for adults, dealing with themes of regicide, war, and lust, to name a few). The songs by Wicked’s Stephen Schwartz are charming and the lyrics engaging. Without style, though, without a director who plays up the darker themes of depression and angst (such as Bob Fosse’s original production, which ran for almost 2000 performances), Pippin becomes the weakling musical that can be beat up by Annie.

A Leading Player (a role which brought stardom and a Tony to Ben Vereen) devilishly urges Pippin to explore facets of life that, once discovered to be meaningless, may lead the youth to despair and suicide. A chorus made up like street performers ably assists the cast of characters by executing a dance step or, you know, urging Pippin to kill himself. But the ending, like the happy smiling face of the 70’s, can come off awfully hokey.

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A “surreal and disturbing” version, you say? Hmmmm. Maybe some kind of gruesome touch to the proceedings could make this an interesting night.

The only thing that turned out to be disturbing at the Hudson Backstage was that this visionless, vacuous version veered into the realm of a Fall Festival competition, where high-schools are allowed 10 minutes to show us their best. I understand that those of us who adjudicate Fall Festivals are reminded to “encourage” not “discourage” the starry-eyed, young souls; so I will say this: I was very happy when the show stuck to simplicity in numbers like, “Love Song,” “Spread a Little Sunshine,” and “No Time At All,” (in which Pippin’s jaunty grandmother advises him to just live it up a little).

But 10 minutes is all you’ll want from this Pippin.

pippin-2-glee-esque-225x300The press release also vowed that “this is not your 1970s tongue-in-cheek musical.” Well, the troupe of Pippin at the Hudson Backstage, without changing a stitch of clothing, could easily have done a production of Godspell, the musical that Pippin’s Schwartz wrote in 1970. In fact, this version felt so 70s in nature that I’m surprised that there wasn’t someone wearing a Qiana shirt, bell-bottoms, and an afro comb.

Would that director Hallie Baran had read the press release prior to staging this ambivalent, amateur, ambiguous, disorderly, disparate, dissatisfying disgrace. Naming your chorus members after the elements and the seven deadly sins (such as “Water” and “Gluttony”) does not constitute vision. If sweet, adorable producer Vincent Perez wants to showcase himself in the title role (the actor bills himself as Vince Perez), he should have hired a competent director instead of his “close friend” (per the program). There certainly is talent on the stage (yes, most are neophytes), but these eager, excited, enthusiastic, energetic players simply needed an auteur…and a choreographer…and a sound designer…and comic timing…and costumes without piping….

pippin-6-older-lady-225x300Jenna Townsend, who plays Pippin’s love interest Catherine, stood alone as magnificent; she is a lovely actress with a glowing, legit voice. It was splendidly delightful watching her. She, too, made me happy. Also quite commendable is the musical direction by Dolf Ramos; the cast sounded fantastic in “Morning Glow.”

A note to the cast and the parents of the cast (and the parents in the cast with bios about their own children): I’m not a mean guy, really. But when I was 19, I myself produced and directed an equity-waiver show that was trounced by critics as a shameless showcase; those hurtful reviews not only thickened my skin and strengthened my resolve, but acted as a wake-up call if I was to take my art seriously. In this insta-fame, media-obsessed culture, what is more important: saying something new or just being seen? Friends and family abound that helped to support this production, as was noted in the program, but they are not your core audience in a semi-legit theatre. The public is. And without vision, you risk alienating audiences that are not comprised of friends and family.

There was a moment early on in Pippin when I set down my notes and imagined myself at a Fall Festival simply so I could feel some degree of happiness, and some of the players did make me happy – but I really wanted to bolt at intermission. This isn’t the Fall Festival.

At one point Catherine asks Pippin, “How do you feel?” He smiles: “Trapped. But happy.” Yeah, I know how you feel.

photos by Ryland Dodge

Pippin
DOMA Theater Co.
Hudson Backstage in Hollywood
scheduled to close November 21, 2010
for tickets, visit www.domatheater.com

{ 5 comments }

Doc Barton November 1, 2010 at 7:06 pm

I grew up in this business, and it is a well know fact about casting directors, and critics, etc: The ones who are ‘mean spirited’ are the ones who couldn’t “make it in the business,” and resent those who are trying, and giving their hearts to do it. Acting an extremely tough “row to hoe,” with a million blockades in front of you. AND, this is NOT BROADWAY, not even Off-Broadway, but HERE in Los Angeles, and WILL be appreciated by many; NOT just by friends and family. Tony Frankel seems to have “missed the point,” giving way to his prejudice and bitterness. If you felt that strongly about “slamming” this production, Mr. Frankel, WHY didn’t you “split” at halftime? If something stinks, I have NO qualms about ‘walking out.”

Trace November 1, 2010 at 7:08 pm

I enjoy Tony Frankel’s reviews, just as I enjoyed the theatre writing of John Simon for many years in New York Magazine. Simon’s viciousness could make Frankel look like…well…Annie, but his writing was enormously entertaining, and he was unafraid to be honest, tough and politically incorrect at times. Yes, those of us who do theatre work hard. We pour our heart, soul and dollars into it, but that doesn’t let us off the hook from our primary responsibility: entertaining and moving the audience, making them laugh, cry, think and discuss. I see a lot of shows, and frankly many of them are awful. It may seem unfair to some, but steering audiences away from mediocre productions and toward good or great ones increases the likelihood of said audience members returning to the theatre with greater frequency. When they see something bad, no matter how noble its intentions, they are more likely to steer clear of theatre. If not forever, certainly longer than we can afford.

Doc Barton November 2, 2010 at 12:31 am

To Trace:
You have a point; too many shows are crap. But, you can’t make an excuse for Tony Frankel until you see PIPPIN. Did You ? The show is WORTH the money and has come together quite nicely. Frankel is OFF the mark, and has a different agenda on this one. He is NOT a qualified or professional critic.

Doug November 3, 2010 at 12:24 pm

Mr. Frankel is right on with his review. In fact, a little more kinder than mine on Goldstar! I just want to know what where these people thinking? or not? And what qualifies me for such harsh words? I’ve been a dance show judge for over 10 years, done theater and film, TV for 30 years, and was a casting director for TV for 5 years. Enough said. People, lighten up! If you put something out there in the public and charge to see it, criticism is only fair–regardless of what you think their qualifications are. True, a review is just one persons vision. If you go and you like it, then the show succeeded for you. In the case of Pippin, it was just the first syllable of that word “succeed.”

Wehoguy November 16, 2010 at 6:40 am

I TOTALLY agree with Tony and even MORE so. And if I had paid $30 (THIRTY DOLLARS!?!??!), I would have walked right back out and asked for my money back after the second number. Thank goodness a date bought the tickets, but even if I had purchased a seat, I would have had to walk ON the stage to leave the theater.

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