Theater Review: PIPPIN (North Coast Repertory)

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by Tony Frankel on July 23, 2023

in Theater-Regional,Theater-San Diego


Some shows stay young by never growing up: With a book by Roger O. Hirson, this 1972 hit show originally directed by Bob Fosse is the perfect example of a musical that’s saved by its spirit and songs — those cheeky and sophisticated tunes by Stephen Schwartz got more than one kid addicted to its still-in-print cast album with soaring ballads and bouncy Broadway burlesque. A story, which may be apocryphal, says that Pippin’s original producers wanted an intermission, but Fosse said that patrons at interval would skip right past concessions and catch a cab when they realized nothing was really going on. With his diabolically clever staging, Fosse made sure that there was “Magic to Do” and audiences ate it up; the show ran a whopping 1.944 performances. On North Coast Rep‘s tiny stage, 10 uber-talented performers prove that a capricious plot and silly dialogue are no match for these game singers who elevate with conviction Schwartz’s peppy to passionate score into a sure-fire charming evening.

Brendan Dallaire, Jason Maddy & James Oblak

A sort of ninth-century, one-ring circus crammed with presentational glee, it was practically a tribal sequel to Schwartz’s Godspell (1971) — with homage to the equally communal Hair (1968). 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.

(left side) Leslie Stevens, Amy Smith, Katie Karel, James Oblak;
(center) Jason Maddy;
(right side) Brendan Dallaire, Katy Tang, Spencer Kearns, Gracie Moore

Act II (yes, we get a much-needed intermission) follows the depressed prince as he attempts domesticity with widow Catherine and her young son Theo. Then he’s back to his futile quest, egged on all the while by a chorus of thespians and the Leading Player, a Sportin’ Life emcee who devilishly urges Pippin to explore facets of life that, once discovered to be empty, may lead the youth to despair and maybe even suicide. As with Godspell, Pippin is constructed like Children’s Theater — although it’s clearly for the older crowd, dealing with regicide, combat, and lust, to name a few.

Gracie Moore & Brendan Dallaire

Director Nick DeGruccio‘s engaging context has a youth enter an abandoned theater, complete with a spooky ghostlight, old boxes, and burned out marquee lights (Marty Burnett‘s set design of a dilapidated Vaudeville house ensures that we understand the story of a youth looking for meaning in a meaningless world has happened many times before). Magic erupts in this intimate and environmental venue, with a cunning cast of perky performers rampaging all over the space. Happily, along with Roxane Carrasco’s inventive choreography (following the funky inspiration of original director Bob Fosse), the show is presented in a highly theatrical and entertaining style. DeGruccio (The End of It, Next to Normal, Man of La Mancha to name a few) is a master at well-focused, humorous and appealing staging.

James Oblak & Amy Smith

Exuberant, genuine and with a voice to please the gods, Brendan Dallaire makes a pleasantly Candide-like Pippin, equally ardent and confused about his fate and future. With long blonde locks looking like a transplanted medieval hippie, Dallaire’s prankster prince projects a ton of irresistible innocence, even when regicide is on his plate.

Katie Karel & James Oblak

A model of merry manipulation and dark misdirection, Robert Zelaya’s Leading Player sings the soul out of the ironic “Simple Joys” and the happening-like opening “Magic to Do.” Solid support comes Jason Maddy’s booming-voiced Charlemagne, Katie Karel’s outlandishly dead-panned wicked stepmother Fastrada, Katy Tang’s devotedly maternal Catherine, James Oblak‘s bodybuilder bully and battlefield brute Lewis (Pippin’s unworthy successor), and Spencer Kearns’ adorable Theo. Making the most of the show’s most memorable melody, comedian Gracie Moore as Pippin’s grandma Berthe — for whom time has taken no toll — joyously leads the troupe in the infectious chorus of “No Time at All.”

Katy Tang, Brendan Dallaire & Spencer Kearns

The musicians Ron Councell (music director extraordinaire), Nikko Nobleza (Guitar/Cello), Mark Margolies (Reeds) and Tom Versen (drums) make the score come alive. Matthew Novotny does the evocative lighting, Zoë Trautmann makes costumes that actually look like they came from a trunk, and Paul Peterson offers sound that ensures we hear every one of Schwartz’s perfectly rhymed lyrics (remember those?).

Leslie Stevens, Robert Zelaya & Amy Smith

As per Pippin’s grandmother, life is merely a brief gift to be enjoyed as best one can. And I can think of no greater gift than a throng of amazing Broadway-caliber actors inspiring all of us to believe that the world is better than fake news would suggest.

photos by Aaron Rumley

North Coast Repertory Theatre
987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive in Solana Beach (San Diego)
Wed at 7; Thurs & Fri at 8; Sat and Sun at 2 & 7; Wed at 2 (select dates)
ends on August 20, 2023
for tickets, call 858.481-1055 or visit North Coast Rep

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