Theater Review: PIPPIN (Mercury Theater Chicago)

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by Lawrence Bommer on October 14, 2018

in Theater-Chicago


Some shows stay young by never growing up: Stephen Schwartz’ silly-stupid 1972 musical is the (im)perfect example of a musical that’s saved by its songs and spirit. A sort of ninth-century, one-ring circus crammed with presentational glee, it was practically a tribal sequel to Schwartz’s Godspell (with homage to the equally communal Hair). As with Jesus and Claude Hooper Bukowski, respectively, it’s also about a would-be redeemer: Pippin (known to history as “Pepin the Hunchback”) was the disgruntled son of the tyrannical Charlemagne, creator of the Holy Roman Empire. Eager for his “Corner of the Sky” and always in a funk over his sheer lack of a destiny, Pippin moves from scholarship to soldiery against the Visigoths, competing with his wicked half-brother Lewis and his intriguing and incestuous stepmother Fastrada for the treacherous affections of his empire-building dad.

But, arguing that less is more, Pippin’s buoyant grandma Berthe cheers him on with “No Time at All.” This devilishly enabling “just do it” ballad — a sing-along treat for the audience — perversely encourages the amoral drifter to supposedly assassinate his father while Charlemagne is praying at Arles. Strangely unpunished for the murder of the monarch, Pippin tries out some half-hearted and misguided reforms, imprudently ending taxes, instituting clueless land reform, and disbanding the Army. (But, with the war in Vietnam seeming never to end, in 1972 that sounded extremely attractive.) No wonder the peasants are revolting.

Then the would-be monarch all but retires from the throne. He runs off to a farm in order to comfort the maternal widow Catherine and her adorable son Theo. He helps to bury Theo’s duck and sings a “Love Song” with the upwardly mobile chatelaine.

Finally, nagged by the charismatic Leading Player and an ensemble eager for a tragic finale, Pippin almost immolates himself on a stake provided by the serviceable chorus. But at the last second he improbably decides to return to the widow who he had pointlessly rejected moments before. A more anti-climactic ending to the very conditional journey of a self-made saint is hard to imagine.

Very little of this has a historical foundation, which makes Roger O. Hirson’s capricious plot and dumbass dialogue even more unfathomable. Its implausibility desperately needs the conviction of Schwartz’s peppy to passionate score.  Happily, which, along with Brenda Didier’s inventive choreography (following the funky inspiration of original director Bob Fosse), it’s the draw for L. Walter Stearns’ engaging revival at Mercury Theater’s newly opened Venus Cabaret. Magic erupts in this intimate and environmental venue, with nine perky performers rampaging all over the space. Four very busy video screens, their cunning projections designed by G. ”Max” Maxin IV, constantly change the scenery and suggest the mood.

Athletic and exuberant, Koray Tarhan makes a pleasantly Candide-like Pippin, equally ardent and confused about his fate and future. For an unrepentant regicide/patricide, this prankster prince projects a ton of irresistible innocence, a transplanted medieval hippie much like Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

A model of merry manipulation and dark misdirection, Donterrio Johnson’s Leading Player sings the soul out of the ironic “Simple Joys” and the happening-like opening “Magic to Do.” Deadpan deliveries and solid support comes from Chicago favorite Don Forston’s vaudevillian Charlemagne, Sawyer Smith’s coquettish and gender-bending wicked stepmother Fastrada (seven years ago he played Lewis in BoHo Theatre’s revival), Nicole Armold’s devotedly maternal Catherine, Adam Fane’s blonde bully of an effete Lewis (Pippin’s unworthy successor), and Gabriel Robert’s adorable Theo. Making the most of the show’s most memorable melody, veteran Iris Lieberman — for whom time has taken no toll — leads the happy audience in the infectious chorus of “No Time at All.”

As swift and fleeting as their namesake, despite little help from a muddled sound system, the Mercury players deliver equal doses of energy and accuracy. Inevitably, they serve this psychedelic show much better than it ever does itself.

photos by Brett A. Beiner

Mercury Theater Chicago’s Venus Cabaret Theater
3745 North Southport
Thurs & Fri at 7:30; Sat at 2:30 & 7:30;
Sun at 2:30; Wed at 7:30 beginning Oct. 31
ends on December 16, 2018
for tickets ($60-$65 includes appetizers and dessert),
call 773.325.1700 or visit Mercury Theater

for more shows, visit  Theatre in Chicago

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