I first became familiar with Pippin when an aunt (I think) gave me the cast album as a Christmas present. I had never heard of it before, and I had no reason to be particularly interested in it. But I listened to it, and discovered I really liked the music. Ben Vereen in particular, and John Rubinstein were very good, and how cool was it that Irene Ryan (Granny from TV's The Beverly Hillbillies), played Berthe? (And what a set of pipes Granny had!)
Then, interestingly enough, when Denise and I met, I discovered that she had the cast album too, and she also loved it.
When Denise and I decided to get married, it took us awhile to pick out a wedding song. We talked about "Love Song" by The Cure, but decided it was a little too stalker-ish. We also considered "Wild Is the Wind" by David Bowie, but then our friend Bruce and I made a few too many fart jokes about it, and that kind of spoiled it for Denise. We came really close to picking "I Can't Help Falling in Love With You", the UB40 reggae version (because neither of us are really Elvis fans). But then, one night a few months before the wedding, the 1981 TV version of Pippin, featuring Ben Vereen amd William Katt, came on television. It reminded us both how much we liked this play in general, and the song "With You" in particular. And although the way they use the song in the play is ironic - it's sung during the period when Pippin tries to find meaning in his life through a series of sexual romps with different women - we both knew right away that this beautiful tune was going to be our wedding song. (We were both familiar with the cast album for years before we saw the play, so I think by the time we saw how cynically the song was used in the show, we were both already in love with it.)
The first time we ever saw Pippin live was a production by the Cultural Arts Playhouse back when it was still in Bethpage on the Saturday night before the famous 2000 hanging chad Presidential election. And in 2013, when the show was revived on Broadway with the role of the Leading Player played by a woman (Patina Miller, who won a Tony Award for her performance), Denise bought me tickets for my birthday.
So, as you can see, I've loved this show for a long time. Say what you will about Sondheim, but after Andrew Lloyd Webber, my favorite composer for musical theater is Stephen Schwartz, who in addition to Pippin, also composed the music to Godspell and Wicked. (Although Sweeney Todd is still pretty cool.)
As regular readers of this blog probably know, one of the ways my daughter and I have bonded over the years is through a mutual love of musical theater. We saw Wicked together on Broadway (her Mom had the fun of taking her to see The Phantom of the Opera) and a number of great musicals at theaters here on Long Island. And one of the things I've learned about her taste is that she has a strong preference for musicals that have a happy ending. (As much as she loves The Rocky Horror Picture Show, she still usually turns it off before the last segment where they kill Frank N. Furter and Rocky). This is funny to me, because she also loves the goriest of horror films. But horror films often don't make you care much about the characters, whereas musical theater shows usually do. Because of her love for musicals that turn out happily, I've always felt that she'd enjoy Pippin. So when I saw that the CM Performing Arts Center was putting on a production, I asked if she and her boyfriend would like to go, and they both said yes. (Denise decided to pass this time.)
Now her boyfriend doesn't have a lot of experience with musical theater. But nevertheless, he was psyched to go, and I was glad to take him, because it gave us a little bonding time together.
So today, we left the house a little later than planned, but still reached the theater in time for the opening curtain of a matinee performance. And there, we were treated to a really powerful production of one of my favorite musicals.
The CM Production of Pippin stars Mikey Marmann as the title character and Nicole Fragala as the Leading Player, with Jennifer Demopoulos as Berthe, Emily Edwards as Catherine, Sari Feldman as Fastrada and Douglas Vandewinckel as Charles. Ashley Nicastro is the director and choreographer.
Marmann is especially strong as Pippin. He has a strong and very appealing voice, and is pitch perfect as the character. I had some doubts about Fragala, which I'll explain in a moment. However, she's super talented, and her characterization grew on me as the show went on.
Here's the deal -- I was never fully sold on changing the gender of The Leading Player from male to female to begin with, primarily because Ben Vereen was so damned good. And really cool, right up until the very end, when he starts to lose it. However, Patina Miller's performance was also engaging -- she was interesting enough to sell me at least partially on the whole Leading Player as a woman thing. She played the role sort of like a singing version of Danai Gurira's Okoye character in the Black Panther film -- there was something fierce about her. However, Fragala's characterization is somewhat different. I almost felt as though she was playing the character of Maureen Johnson from Rent playing The Leading Player.
I'll admit, it might even be at least partially a race thing. I was never the most flexible person with change to begin with, and at 61 years old, I'm certainly not getting any better at that. The other day at Weight Watcher's, some woman sat in my regular seat, and it drove me crazy throughout the meeting. (And no, I will not start referring to Weight Watcher's as "WW", or the meetings as "workshops", the way the company wants to. Why can't you people just leave s*** alone!?) ... See what I mean about how well I do with change? So maybe I was able to handle changing the Leading Player from a black man to a black woman OK, but changing from a black man to a white woman was just a bridge too far for me.
In any event, I noticed that by the second act, especially in The Leading Player's interactions with the character of Catherine, Fragala's interpretation of the character started to work for me. All of which is just a long-winded and roundabout way of saying that Fragala is probably really good, and I'm just a mental patient.
Speaking of Catherine, this was another interpretation I had an interesting reaction to. In the beginning, I found Emily Edwards' version of the character a little annoying. Not that the actress was making bad choices, just that the character herself, as presented by Edwards, was annoying. I could see why it took Pippin a little while to warm up to her. Ultimately, though, I found that I liked and attached to the character more powerfully than to any of the other versions of Catherine I've yet seen. There was something immensely sympathetic about her, and quietly brave, that I reacted to very emotionally. So kudos for Ms. Edwards for creating such an effective characterization.
The rest of the cast was all quite good. There were a few minor mic problems throughout the afternoon, but nothing catastrophic.
I also need to say a word about the choreography here. I'll admit I'm far from an expert on dance. Like, pretend that I'm here on Earth, and being an expert on dance is on Pluto. (Which is a frickin' planet, by the way! That's another change I don't accept!) That's how far I am from choreographical expertise. But Pippin was originally a Bob Fosse-directed show, so the choreography is really important here. And for a relatively small regional theater, I found the choreography here super impressive. Also, the 2013 revival really upped the stakes on the players performing circus-quality acts of derring-do. And while the acrobatics and magic tricks here weren't quite as superb as they were on Broadway, they were still way more extensive than I had expected.
So overall, I have to say that this was an enjoyable and extremely satisfying version of Pippin. As for my daughter and her boyfriend, they both loved it. My daughter's boyfriend particularly mentioned enjoying the song "Extraordinary", and singled out the performances of Fragala and Vandewinckel as especially noteworthy. My daughter liked the sex cage segment. (Don't ask.) I just found several of Marmann's songs to be exquisite, including "Morning Glow", "Corner of the Sky" and, of course, "With You".
Pippin has three more scheduled performances at the Noel S. Ruiz Theatre in the CM Performing Arts Center in Oakdale: Wednesday, January 30 at 7:30 PM, and Friday and Saturday, Feb. 1 and 2. at 8 PM. I recommend the show highly.