Musical theater buffs often point to Pippin when asked to prove that they liked Stephen Schwartz before he was cool (for youngsters out there, before he wrote Wicked). A complex coming-of-age story, Pippin tells the story of a troupe of performers who tell the story of Prince Pippin, son of Charlemagne, with the goal of convincing the actor playing Pippin to participate in a fiery, fatal finale. Pippin features well-known songs such as “Corner of the Sky,” “Magic to Do,” and “No Time At All,” as well as some of Bob Fosse’s most memorable choreography.
Levels of Performance Blurred by Show-Within-a-Show
HE SAID: So this was my first time seeing Pippin. I had heard a fair amount of the music before, but I didn’t really know anything about the story or the way in which that story is presented. Now, having seen it, I am not sure that I fully understand it, which I think is due to the unclear writing. I see the coming of age story. I see a lesson of finding fulfillment in real relationships as opposed to the fleeting excitement of spectacle. But, the idea that these are actors playing characters who are actors playing characters in a show about Pippin is not really made clear until midway through the second act. For a while it just seemed like actors putting on a show. That play within a play is set up to most effectively make the point of how empty the spectacle can be, but since that extra layer was not made clear until nearly the end, the final lesson was not made as powerfully as it could have been.
SHE SAID: I definitely agree with you that the play within a play part of things isn’t made super clear until very late, and that the main flaw is in the writing of the musical. I was familiar with the show (and was in the ensemble of a production of it in college), and so I was watching it with an eye for the story that I knew was there. Ignite had an uphill battle trying to make that clear, and although it would have been interesting to see an attempt to make the multiple levels more clear (with a drastic change in lighting, or physicality/vocalization depending on whether folks were in double or single character), that is rarely done. This production definitely included several references early on to the fact that they were putting on a show, but I understand how those might be interpreted by someone new to the show as just tongue-in-cheek references that break the 4th wall, instead of a hint that we’ll see more of the actors playing the characters in Pippin’s story.
Leading Vocalists Deliver on Recognizable Music
HE SAID: The other thing that would have helped drive home the idea that true fulfillment is found in relationships and love would have been a greater contrast between those that choose love and those that don’t. We can’t fully appreciate how great something is without seeing how hollow the players who have chosen the opposite are – and that empty despair wasn’t apparent enough for me. What exactly was driving the players was relatively unclear, except for Matt LaFontaine as Pippin and Rebekah Lancaster as Catherine. LaFontaine has so many emotional highs and lows rested on his shoulders and he offered up a very nicely nuanced performance with clear actions and intentions. It was really a treat to watch him work in this role.
SHE SAID: LaFontaine definitely gave a performance worthy of the title role. His voice soared during the traditional musical hits in the show, and he added plenty of vocal twists that (at least around the Denver area) only he is capable of. Throughout, he portrayed a lot of clarity and complexity in his character’s reactions and experience. Rebekah Lancaster was also delightful, giving a pleasingly well-rounded performance both vocally and acting-wise. As the Leading Player, Ashlie-Amber Harris was difficult to take your eyes (and ears) off of as she popped in and out of the action. She handled the vocal and movement requirements of this iconic role commendably, like LaFontaine, adding her own incredible style. But when you said you wanted the motivation of the players to be more clear, I wonder if it would have helped if her Leading Player had been a bit more clear in representing the goal of her manipulation. She was powerful, undoubtedly, but I wasn’t sure why she and the rest of the players were so invested in Pippin, what it would mean for them if they got their way.
Bold, Dark Design Dominates
HE SAID: The other stand out for me, as I mentioned, was Lancaster as Catherine. It’s a surprising role that doesn’t really come out until the second act – a rarity for such an important and show changing character. Lancaster has a beautiful voice, showcased wonderfully in her short time on stage, and that is just the beginning of turns out to be a funny and moving performance. Her costume, on the other hand, could have been more appealing. I appreciated that the costumes were designed by Laura High to be muted, neutral tones for the players unless they were playing a leading role. And while I appreciated that the costumes seem to come from different periods to give a more eternal quality to the players, there were a few that weren’t flattering, or reflective of the characters.
SHE SAID: The lighting design by Rebecca Wootner was bold, with a lot of back-lighting near the front of the stage, and the most color coming from the scrim on the back wall. This created some striking, gorgeous visual moments! There were other moments that were a bit dark for my taste. During the opening number I actually wondered whether a spot light was out, because the people singing were in such low light. As the show went on, I think I appreciated it more, but it took me a while to get used to! Another thing that took getting used to was the length of some of the (super sexy) dance breaks. With Danny Harrigan as choreographer/director, and a sultry Fosse style, I’m not surprised that they used every minute of them, but modern musical audiences just aren’t used to 10-minute dance breaks, and it’s possible that dance could have been used to tell those parts of the story more efficiently.
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Ignite’s Pippin Will Entertain, But Not Convert
THEY SAID: Pippin tends to be a show that people either love or hate. Some people get it and thoroughly connect to the themes and storytelling conventions used in the material. Others are left a bit curious throughout the show, wondering what exactly is going on and why. Although Ignite’s production probably will not convert someone who already dislikes the musical, they do a fine job telling the somewhat complex story with several wonderful performances. LaFontaine and Lancaster stand out, but the entire choral sound (accompanied by a 21-piece orchestra!) is simply incredible. If you haven’t seen Pippin before, it might not be crystal clear what the story is, but as promised, it delivers on intrigue, humor, and sex!For a full history and plot synopsis of Pippin, see the wikipedia article. Pippin, presented by Ignite Theatre, plays through August 21 at the main stage at The Aurora Fox. Click the banner above for tickets and more information.