Simple joys: 'Pippin' shines brightest in quiet moments

Egan Millard
Courtesy of Theatre Artists United

Anyone attempting to recreate the hyper-energetic dazzle of a Bob Fosse show certainly has big shoes to fill. Or, perhaps, big sequined evening gloves.

The renowned writer, director and choreographer, the creative force behind such hits as "Chicago," "Damn Yankees" and "All That Jazz," spiced up musical theater with his dynamic dancing style, uncanny knack for staging huge musical numbers and, yes, liberal use of jazz hands.

"Pippin," while not as widely known as some of Fosse's other productions, is just as flashy, campy and naughty. First produced on Broadway in 1972, and featuring music by Steven Schwartz and libretto by Fosse and Roger Hirson, the show tells the tale of Pippin, the son of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne. (While Charlemagne actually did have a son named Pepin, that's about as far as the historical accuracy goes.) Pippin, a curious and precocious young man, sets out to find the meaning of life and an extraordinary cause to devote himself to. Framed by the Leading Player and her Greek chorus-troupe, the show follows Pippin as he throws himself into one lurid pursuit after another -- war, sex, power -- only to find that he is most content in a simple domestic life with a widow and her young son.

That's a lot of ground for one show to cover, and Theatre Artists United's production does so with mixed results. Perhaps it was the fact that the audience for the Saturday evening show I attended seemed reluctant to let loose and enjoy themselves. Or maybe it was the dull ambience of the Sydney Laurence Theatre itself -- a venue perhaps too sterile for a show like this. But a Fosse show simply doesn't work unless the entire cast is coordinated, both in terms of physicality and over-the-top energy, and this performance understandably fell short.

The Leading Player is meant to be the show's seductive and sinister ringmaster -- much like the Emcee in "Cabaret" -- who orchestrates the characters' actions and delights in their mischief, frequently breaking the fourth wall. In this role, Regina MacDonald is certainly competent, if a bit rigid. But the role is meant to be complemented by an equally forceful and enticing chorus; this is probably the production's most significant letdown. While some of the players showed energy and vigor in spurts (usually when they were featured in a scene), the chorus as a whole did not maintain the consistent tone of excitement that the show requires. Vicente Capala, however, clearly stood out from the rest of the chorus and gave off a brilliantly vampish aura every moment he was on stage. Mr. Fosse would have been proud.

The principal cast is also marred by inconsistency. Dean Williams, as the clueless Charlemagne, does not seem confident in his performance and saps much of the humor from the role by stretching out the comic timing. Charlotte Fischbach, playing Pippin's scheming stepmother, Fastrada, seems similarly strained in her role, though I would attribute this to director John Fraser's problematic decision to have her simultaneously play Sarah Palin. (The audience did not respond to a series of awkwardly injected hockey mom jokes.) But Gigi Lynch, as Pippin's fun-loving, libertine grandmother, Berthe, seems to be not only confident in her role, but having the time of her life on stage. Her zesty engagement with the audience is delightful and memorable.

But what of Pippin himself? The role is difficult enough to play when surrounded by a totally consistent and confident supporting cast, and vastly more challenging without it. Which is why Leo Grinberg's performance is so commendable. In a show designed to be an ensemble tour-de-force, Grinberg carries a great deal of the show's energy on his own. He is both entertaining and charmingly believable as the bright-eyed young man searching for meaning in a world filled with hollow pursuits.

And because so much of the show rests on him, this production is at its best in Act II, when Pippin has endured all the temptations the world has to offer and finds himself bruised and bloodied after a series of unsuccessful campaigns on the battlefield and in the bedroom. He is taken in by the widow Catherine (Danielle Rabinovitch), who is immediately taken with him. The sparkle and seduction of Act I gives way to an entirely different drama as Pippin gradually lets go of his grand illusions and finds satisfaction in the small joys of family life.

And this is precisely where a flashier production might falter. Because "Pippin" isn't just about campy costumes and dazzling dance routines. There is, at the same time, a layer of humble, genuine sincerity, which becomes more apparent as the show goes on. Grinberg, Rabinovitch and Coco Ramos (as Catherine's son, Theo) do an excellent job of showing us the joy of all things small and intimate. And that makes it all the more believable when, during the show's infamous finale (this production uses a newer ending instead of the controversial original), Pippin chooses Catherine and Theo over glory and intrigue.

So this production of "Pippin" is a curious one that, in a roundabout way, mirrors the meaning of the story itself. Those who lust after spectacle and entertainment and get too hung up on their grandiose expectations (like Pippin -- and this reviewer) will ultimately be disappointed. But if they let their desires give way to patient curiosity, they will be rewarded.