Review: Pippin

Pippin is a man in search of something more — his “Corner of the Sky.” Throughout his journey, he finds some exciting things, but they’re never enough. “Pippin” the show, which opened for a free week-long run at Miller Outdoor Theatre last night, has the same problem. It finds some exciting moments but needs to keep searching for something more.

Composer Stephen Schwartz (perhaps best known for “Wicked”) brought “Pippin” to Broadway for the first time in the early 70s and the show’s original version, which is for the most part presented in this production, feels a bit dated at times. The recent Broadway revival did a nice job of trimming the fat and tightening up the book, resulting in a far superior product. This is a difficult story to tell, as the composer himself has said that there is no single “correct” interpretation. The show is a symphony of allegories and metaphors, not simple musical comedy escapism. Attention must be paid and though must be given not only to the surface plot, but also what lies beneath. It is complicated and complex, a problem compounded by several elements of this production.

Overall, the physical production was impressive, especially for a free show in an outdoor park setting. For those who don’t know, Theater Under the Stars (as the name implies) began as an outdoor performance troupe. They eventually moved to an indoor theatre, but they never abandoned their roots. Each summer, they return to Hermann Park and present a fully-produced free musical featuring Broadway-caliber talent on and off stage. Scenically, this show fulfills that promise. The set resembles an abandoned or run-down backstage area, with various props and items strewn about. We are clearly inside what was once a theatre and I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a haunted venue and perhaps the performance troupe within the show were its ghosts. The various items were used as seats, church pews and other set pieces throughout the performance. From a staging point of view, the show is in fine shape.

The sound, however, is another issue. Regular readers will know that I have frequently criticized TUTS for sound issues on their locally-produced shows. Sadly, missed mic cues and static have become a regular occurrence at many of their performances at the Hobby Center. This issue has continued at Miller Outdoor Theatre. Speaking with some of the cast members’ families during the oddly-placed intermission, I was told that the cast believes that police radios were interfering with their wireless microphones. This may very well be true, but some cast members never had mic issues while others (including many of the leads) had trouble throughout. Surely this could’ve been sorted out during tech rehearsals? Give the better mics to the leads and let the ensemble have the questionable ones.

Microphone issues aside, the sound mixing was also suspect. The opening chords of “Magic to Do” are well-known but were practically unintelligible. It was as if the sound booth faded the music up a few notes into the opening. After that, it seemed like there were few, if any, adjustments to the mix. At times, the voices were easy to hear but at other times, almost unintelligible. This show is hard enough to follow when you CAN hear it — the sound issues, regardless of their origin, did the show no favors last night and were clearly frustrating the audience members around me. The other people in my party of four had some difficulty following the plot since key points were missed due to mic outages or badly mixed audio.

Local favorite Holland Vavra was electric at Leading Player, the head of the theatre troupe leading Pippin on his journey. She dances and sings well and brings the right level of menace to the role. Her first “entrance” during the opening number “Magic to Do” is cleverly staged. I won’t reveal the surprise but it works very well. As Pippin, Thomas Williams was hit or miss. His book scenes were excellent but I found his singing to be inconsistent. His “Corner of the Sky” – the “I want” number that establishes his journey, was weak but he did well on other numbers including “With You” and “Morning Glow.” Other standouts included Brian Mathis as Pippin’s father Charles and Betty Marie Muessig shining as Catherine.

The rest of the cast was fine but unremarkable. On paper, this is an extremely talented cast doing the best they can with the tools they’ve been given. The direction and choreography was also sporadic, with some scenes scoring well while others fell flat. There were also several missed lines/flubbed lyrics, including mistakes during “War is a Science” and “No Time at All.” Yes, it’s live theatre and these things happen, but I’ve honestly never seen this many in a single performance. Not sure how long of a rehearsal period the show had, but this felt more like a dress rehearsal than a true opening night performance.

Even with its flaws, the audience at last night’s opening seemed to enjoy the show overall. There is great potential here but at this point, much like Pippin himself, the “something more” has not been found. Hopefully as the run continues, many of the issues will be sorted out, or as the song says, put “On the Right Track.”

**1/2 out of *****
“Pippin”
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by Roger O. Hirson
Directed by Michelle Gaudette
Presented by Theatre Under the Stars
Now through July 16th
Tickets: FREE show
Photo: Holland Vavra as Leading Player and the company in the Theatre Under the Stars production of “Pippin” at Miller Outdoor Theatre

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