What do you do when you are the son of an emperor but you wish to find your own way in the world, your own “corner of the sky”? Well, you go on a quest and, as with any quest, regardless of the stated goals, the real resolution of a quest is always self-knowledge. Such is the case with the eponymous Pippin, son of Charlemagne, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, in this vigorous production of the musical that bears the young man’s name. Written by Roger O. Hirson, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, the musical is currently on the boards at the relocated Summer Theatre of New Canaan, and it is a superb way to spend a summer’s evening.
Directed by the brother-sister team of Christian and Allegra Libonati, this is a reimagined version of the musical that eschews all of the circus aspects of the Broadway revival as well as the Bob Fosse choreography (Doug Shankman does the honors here). It’s fresh and entrancing and, save for some final moments in the finale, essentially without flaws, thanks to the production’s superb cast.
The frame for the show is that we have a troupe of traveling actors/dancers who, to entertain us, seek to tell us the story of Pippin. Whatever fourth wall that could have been conceived (STONC is now a theater-in-the-round) is broken almost immediately by the opening number. “Magic To Do,” which introduces the troupe and its Leading Player, the vivacious Melissa Victor The song suggests that what we are about to see is manufactured reality, a whimsical journey that will often transcend theatrical norms in the pursuit of entertainment.
Following the opening number, Pippin (the talented Zach Schanne – he won the Ct Critics Circle award for best actor in a musical for his role as Tony in STONC’s “West Side Story) proclaims his desire to find his true purpose in life (“Corner of the Sky), which begins when his half-brother, Lewis (Omen Sade) and the emperor proclaim that “War is a Science,” and thus Pippin’s first step towards self-awareness is to participate in a battle, with the chorus and the Leading Player ironically singing about the “Glory” to be obtained on the battlefield. Alas, all Pippin eventually sees is the dead and dying.
So, if warfare is not to be the goal of Pippin’s quest, then what is? Well, he is heir to the throne, but there is quite a lot of court intrigue, most of it revolving around Louis and his mother, Fastrada (the enticing Jodi Stevens – she won a CCC award for her role in “Singin’ in the Rain”). This will lead to regicide on Pippin’s part, which he will soon come to regret (ruling an empire is not an easy thing), as well as Pippin turning to unbridled hedonism as the answer to his concerns. Neither foray into emperorship or licentiousness satisfies.
In one of the show’s high points, Pippin seeks solace and guidance from his grandmother, Berthe (the perky Janelle Robinson, another recipient of a CCC award, this one for her supporting role as Bloody Mary in STONC’s production of “South Pacific”). He bemoans his plight, but she, being of a certain age, isn’t buying any of it. This leads to “No Time at All,” a bouncy, saucy tune that turns into an audience sing-along.
Though Pippin may seem lost, he might just be on “The Right Track,” for at the start of the second act he meets the lithesome Catherine (the winning Ella Raymont), who proclaims in a delightful solo that she is the right “Kind of Woman.” Catherine is a widow living on an estate with her young daughter, Theo (Julia Desai). At first, Pippin is reluctant to be tied down to the estate and to Catherine, but slowly she wins him over (a little sex never hurts) so that, when it comes time for the promised grand finale, in which Pippin is supposed to immolate himself in a fire pit for the gratification of the audience, he pulls back, realizing that what he has found in Catherine and Theo is what he has been always searching for.
If there is a misstep in the production, it occurs in this scene, for the “pit” has been rigged with a stage smoke machine that belches forth waves of smoke that, well, don’t look very threatening and essentially mask many of the actors until the fog dissipates. There could have been another way – perhaps with lighting – that would have conveyed the pit’s scorching fire – right now it seems that the fire is simply smoldering, as if water has been poured on a campfire.
That being said, there’s not much else to complain about in this production. The ensemble, consisting of Matthew Aaron-Liotine, Erica Perez-Barton, Kelcey Matheny, Donovan Medelovitz, Graham Mortier and Samantha Sayah, perform their dance numbers with exuberance and fill STONC’s tent with their superb voices. As for the leads, all of whom are members of the Actors’ Equity Association, well, there’s not much more that you could ask for. In all, it’s a well-staged, deftly choreographed, enticing show that will only get better as the cast gets more performances under its collective belts and it should draw in the crowds throughout its run.
As an aside, when Ed Libonati, STONC’s executive directive, was asked prior to the curtain about the reason for moving the venue to 56 South Street, his succinct answer was, “Why not?” As he explained, it puts the theater closer to the center of New Canaan and allows patrons to dine at the various restaurants in New Canaan and then simply walk to the theater – which many did on opening night. All in all, it would seem to be a smart move.
Pippin runs through July 28. For tickets or more information call 203-966-4634 or go to www.stonc.org