Pippin: Doma Theater Company, 11/7/10

10 11 2010

On Saturday night, I purchased a discounted ticket to see Pippin at the Hudson Backstage. On Sunday morning just before I headed out to see the matinee, Bitter Lemons published an intriguing post: A Meta Critic and a Commenter Walk Into a Chat Room.  It seems Tony Frankel’s review disappointed someone associated with the production. Rather than defend the production with a counter-argument, “Doc Barton” launched into a vicious personal attack in the comments section. The original review, Doc Barton’s “WHAT IS A TONY FRANKEL ?” commentary, and the ensuing dialogue on Bitter Lemons makes for an entertaining read – especially just before going to see the production in question.

With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Roger O. Hirson, Pippin has always been an elusive musical: no matter how much fans want this show to work, this tale of a young boy in search of his “Corner of the Sky” rarely comes together on stage. Pippin is a parable of failure and compromise: the son of Charlemagne may dream of doing “extraordinary things,” but he finds himself constantly unable to live up to his potential. Perhaps it is apt, then, that the musical itself rarely lives up to our mental ideal of it. Much like Bernstein’s Candide, Pippin‘s perpetual problems and penchant for failure arguably makes it all the more endearing to fans. A coherent production truly demands “magic” from the creative team and cast: How do you make sense of the episodic structure? How do you define the functions of the narrator and players, who frame and interact with the central story? How do you live up to Fosse’s original 1972 choreography or strike the necessary balance between light musical comedy and dark subjects ranging from war to suicide?

I want to foreground these problems with the show itself because Doma Theater Company already has the odds against them in choosing to produce Pippin. I applaud their attempt, even though I have to agree with much of Tony Frankel’s review. As Frankel suggests in somewhat more caustic terms, Doma’s production is predominately a showcase for young Los Angeles talent; the actors are perhaps too enthusiastic and committed, each one clamoring for the spotlight without particularly cohering as an ensemble. The purported “edge” of this production is its (overemphasis on) sexuality: Jenna Nickerson’s choreography, dominated by pelvic thrusts, accompanies every possible innuendo in the script. Meanwhile, Michael Mullen and Brandy A. Jacob’s costumes aim to provoke – but often end up visually overwhelming the audience with glitter galore, including facepaint. In short, the production is trying too hard to do too much.

Hallie Baran’s direction is servicable, but why employ stagehands for scene changes when you have a dozen capable players on hand? Actors offer exaggerated performances – yet the music often redeems the show. The actors’ strong voices and Dolf Ramos’ apt music direction of a small, tight ensemble makes for a well-sung musical; I oftentimes found myself closing my eyes to focus on the voices rather than the onstage confusion. Vince Perez’s Pippin has a lovely and pristine vocal tone, while Renee Cohen’s Leading Player rocks a low alto range; I surprisingly enjoyed the gender-bending of this part, originated on Broadway by Ben Vereen.

The Tony Frankel controversy had prepared me. As an audience member, I settled into Doma’s production of Pippin ready to accept the production for what it is and what it isn’t … which I think is the best way to approach any show. In moments, this musical genuinely engaged me. Act II surprised me with a much more coherent throughline, and elements of this production – such as the foregrounding of sexuality – set my mind to potential alternative stagings. After all, Pippin may be a perpetual failure, but we have to keep trying to achieve that extraordinary ideal.

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3 responses

10 11 2010
Tony Frankel

Like I said, Sarah, “Trapped, but happy.” Loved your review!
Tony

19 11 2010
Jazzman

This is a well thought out and composed review. Reviews are opinions and opinions are like belly buttons. . . everybody’s got one. I don’t know who Sarah Taylor Ellis is, however I am bookmarking this site and her “compositions on theatre” page. It definitely makes for good, balanced and interesting reading.

11 12 2010
Doc Barton

Sarah,

I agree with Jazzman . . .and you.
Very well written and thoughtful.

It’s good to see a fair, intelligent response for a change, without directing people.
All theater deserves a chance . . . and much of it is really, really bad, but I do try to bear with it . . .thinking “it has to get better, cause it can’t get worse”. Sometimes it does . . . many times it doesn’t.
I understand DOMA will reproduce PIPPIN . . .again . . .at the MET Theater in early 2011 . . . . .new production, new cast, etc. in a more “standard” theater venue. It will be interesting to compare the new production with the old. That’s a good show you can twist around variations with, the music being the salvation . . . of the oldest, sometimes tired theme. BUT, the most impressive message to me, and applicable to life in general was ” until you’re tied to something . . . you’ll NEVER be free ” . . . .all of us . . .TRAPPED indeed, but better than “looking at the Sun”.
I heard that even after Steven Schwartz’ emails to DOMA, the revived Broadway production of PIPPIN will be casting a female as ‘ Leading Player.’
Interesting, since ‘some people’ balked about a ‘female’ Leading Player
in DOMAs production doing the Ben Vereen part.
So be it.
Doc

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