Friday, September 21, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "PIPPIN" at Diversionary Theatre

A Dark and Dazzling “PIPPIN”:
Diversionary upends the Stephen Schwartz classic in a brilliantly re-imagined revival

By Donnie Matsuda

There’s a lot of magic to be done in any production of the musical Pippin, as its large ensemble cast must transform into a fanciful troupe of performers who re-enact the life and times of real-life 8th century prince Pippin the Hunchback, the eldest son of King Charlemagne.  Of course, there is a script they must follow (a crafty and somewhat disorderly book by Roger O. Hirson peppered with plenty of social and political commentary) and songs they must sing (a pleasantly melodic, if a bit plaintive, score by Stephen Schwartz).  But as the show-within-a-show follows Pippin on his post-college journey of self discovery, one can’t help but feel like there’s something special and a bit surreal going on as the machinations of the show’s narrator, the Leading Player, keep us transfixed on the proceedings.  As we watch Pippin attempt to find some purpose in his life, knowing that he’s destined for extraordinary things, there’s clearly a magical force at play, guiding him through frivolous pursuits of battle, backstabbing, sexual debauchery, drugs, power, and, ultimately, a happy (albeit, ordinary) ending.  

Courtney Corey as Leading Player and Louis Pardo as Pippin in Diversionary's "Pippin."  Photo by Ken Jacques.
And most certainly, there is even more magic to be done in Diversionary’s edgy and raw revival.  That’s because director/choreographer James Vasquez has taken the original version of Pippin and meticulously turned it upside down and inside out, re-imagining nearly every element so that it all comes together with a heavy-hitting pop-rock vibe.  Not only does his funky staging fill the small space beautifully (with actors occasionally coming out into the aisles), but his spirited choreography is impressive and exciting to watch.  He duly pays homage to the show’s original director/choreographer, Bob Fosse, but also seamlessly interweaves a number of other dance styles – from syncopated tap breaks, to sensual pelvic thrusts, to plenty of creative prop-ography – that provide visually intriguing pictures and move the action along in meaningful ways.     

The Company of "Pippin."  Photo by Ken Jacques.
Casting is often a tricky thing with a play like Pippin, but Vasquez is blessed to have found an insanely talented bunch of musical theatre mavens who fill his re-vamped artistic vision to a tee.  Louis Pardo turns in a passionate performance as Pippin.  Not only does he trace his character’s arc (from eager scholar to confident monarch to defeated realist) seamlessly, but he also showcases his soaring tenor in a beautiful rendition of “Corner of the Sky” and his pleasant, easygoing voice is put to good use in “With you” and “Extraordinary.”  As Pippin’s right hand man (or in this case, woman), Courtney Corey is both fierce and fearless as the Leading Player.  Sporting a black leather bustier and powerful pumps, she commands the stage at every turn and dazzles the audience with her piercing looks, pitch-perfect pipes, and attitude-heavy narration.  Now all she needs is a whip and a sling and she’d be ready to rock and roll!

Luke Jacobs as Fastrada.  Photo by Ken Jacques.
The other players in the eight member cast are all incredibly strong singer/actor/dancers and they provide outstanding support while also doubling in a number of character roles.  In a truly genius bit of gender-bending, the role of sex-starved housewife Fastrada (Pippin’s stepmother) is played to aplomb by Luke Jacobs in drag.  His/her seductive, hip-swiveling rendition of “Spread a little sunshine” is a hoot, as he/she lusts after his/her son, Lewis (Pippin’s half-brother), who is here re-envisioned as a strong and straight gun-toting military man, thanks to some solid acting chops by Tony Houck.   

And then there’s the delightfully droll Wendy Maples as Pippin’s grandmother, Berthe.  Her first act show-stopper, “No time at all,” is one of the show’s highlights as she channels nearly every musical there diva in her cabaret-style number, complete with a bevy of boy back-up dancers (what else would you expect from a theatre queen!?).  And Megan Carmitchel as Catherine and Hunter Schwartz as her son Theo provide some truly gut-wrenching and heartfelt moments in the second act, as they introduce Pippin to the joys of a simpler, humbler life in “Kind of woman,” “Prayer for a duck,” and “Love song.”  Then there's Diversionary veteran Andy Collins who nicely rounds out the cast as a strong-willed, though not terribly strong-minded, King Charles.     

Louis Pardo as Pippin, Megan Carmitchel as Catherine, Hunter Schwartz as Theo, and Courtney Corey as Leading Player.  Photo by Ken Jacques.
Not only are the artistic elements here re-vamped, but the technical elements are equally intriguing and impressive.  Sean Fanning’s grungy set is a modern-day mash up between "RENT" and "American Idiot" and makes a fresh statement about the technology-dominated, hyper-commercialized world we live in.  Not only do his bleak heaps of trash form an intriguing collage of crap, but his set is also embedded with a number of TV screens – rigged as security cameras and live video feeds - which serve as an omnipresent reminder to us that big brother is always watching.  And the technical fascination with media imagery and shameless consumerism is carried over into Shirley Pierson’s deconstructed costume designs.  Her punk-rock style gives an eclectic look to the characters (with plenty of leather, distressed denim, and ripped, recycled fabrics to inhabit a small landfill) and she manages to insert some truly clever creations into her design, such as armor plates made of beer boxes and a king’s cape made of faux fur and an American flag.

While Pippin feels a bit dated in style, Diversionary’s raucous new re-telling does a first-rate job of bringing it into the twenty-first century with a little bit of modern-day macabre and a whole lot of musical theatre magic.  With a genius new concept, top notch talent, and impressive technical achievements, this Pippin is truly an “extraordinary” musical journey and one that is not to be missed.  

Things to know before you go: PIPPIN plays at Diversionary Theatre at 4545 Park Blvd San Diego, CA 92116 through October 14, 2012.  Running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes with a 15 minute intermission.  Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets are $36-$41.  For more information or to purchase tickets, call (619) 220-0097 or visit

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