At Cain Park's Alma Theater, Pippin audience members are handed paper fans, presumably to cool down the blush from all that sexual excess generated by the mostly collegiate exhibitionists on the stage.
Commencing the musical debauchery is a Catherine Zeta-Jones look-alike in the role originally played by a black male. Gazing defiantly out from her platinum flapper bob is Jessica L. Cope's Leading Player. Even more ruthless in narcissistic hauteur is her cohort, who works the baby blues with a cutthroat winsomeness that would shame Shirley Temple.
Ah, you surmise — yet another go-around with Bob Fosse's Chicago. But there's a disconnect here. The jazz baby is selling the wrong song. Instead of calling for "All That Jazz," she is informing us that there is "Magic to Do." The apparently male cohort, instead of being a down-and-out showgirl, appears to be a discontented prince, searching for his "Corner of the Sky."
There's a confusing cacophony here, like conflicting radio stations fighting for the same frequency. It looks and acts like Fosse's ode to murderesses. In reality, it's supposed to be his earlier triumph, Pippin. But Victoria Bussert's Cain Park production shows blatant disregard for the innocence and idealism that Pippin embraces. She's disastrously cross-wired her Fosse to the point that style tramples substance.
What's irritating here is not lack of theatrical craftsmanship but a complete absence of integrity and originality. It's a case of beg, borrow or steal, and an amazing lack of perspicacity. For instance, Pippin's grandmother is portrayed as a figure out of another Fosse misappropriation, Cabaret. Maryann Nagel's Berthe, in inapt braids and dirndl, unwittingly helps participate in the assassination of the show's music-hall blockbuster, "No Time at All." Nagel is too much of an introspective performer to sell this kind of over-the-top romp, whose surefire singalong is squelched by the grievous omission of projected lyrics.
Perhaps the most melancholic aspect of the evening is the almost Hollywood-like lapse into self-aggrandizement of Corey Mach as Pippin. Last year, as the eponymous Harold in the Cain Park production of the musical Harold and Maude, he gave a performance striking in its unadorned freshness and vulnerability. Now, as the boy prince, he's become something of an MGM superstar with everything but a close-up.
Pippin is another example of a show where the director and choreographer should be one and the same. Martin Céspedes is the evening's savior, giving tyro dancers a polish and purpose way beyond their youthful skills. Even though the production fights against the folksy warmth of Stephen Schwartz's score, Céspedes' choreography shows a profound understanding of the sexual and emotional conflicts inherent in the show's lyrics.
While it isn't necessary to mirror a show's original production, one must be privy to the fertile soil from which the material sprouted. The daisies that once inhabited Pippin have been replaced by artificial flowers.
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