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REVIEW: "Pippin" — Kentwood Players, Westchester

“...Think about the sun, Pippin. Think about her golden glance. How she lights the world upWell, now it's your chance!”

"Pippin," an offbeat, entertaining story of the son of Charlemagne and his search for something fulfilling, is the latest classical rendering from Kentwood Players, “LA’s most professional, amateur theater group,” at Westchester Playhouse, 8301 Hindry Avenue in Westchester, lighting up our world on a warm, spring night.

Overall, the musical is glitzy, stylish and full of life, and plays through June 22nd, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sunday matinees at 2pm. The show is directed and choreographed by Alison Boole, musically directed by Catherine Rahm and produced by Jeremy and Lyndsay Palmer.

Pippin is a Tony Award-winning musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Roger O. Hirson. Bob Fosse, who directed the original Broadway production, also contributed to the libretto. The musical derives itself from the old Burlesque of Faust, using the premise of a mysterious performance troupe, led by a “Leading Player,” to tell the story of Pippin, a young prince on his search for meaning and significance.

During this surreal, energy-filled musical quest, "Pippin" details the imagined hardships of the unappreciated son (played by Kyle Ray) of Charlemagne (Jon Sparks), ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, as he attempts to find himself in a strange and glittering psychedelic-medieval world. The protagonist Pippin and his father Charlemagne are characters derived from two real-life individuals of the early Middle Ages, though the plot presents no historical accuracy of the dramatis personae, or that any of these events took place. In fact, Charlemagne’s elder son (who was actually called Pepin and had a mild form of kyphosis), had a questionable lineage to the throne due to a spurious union of the parents.

Pippin was originally conceived as an independent student project musical by Stephen Schwartz while at Carnegie Mellon, entitled “Pippin, Pippin” and performed by Carnegie Mellon University's Scotch'n'Soda theatre troupe. Later, Schwartz decided to develop the show further, but said that not a single line or note that was in the original show at Carnegie Mellon made it into the final show we see today. The musical opened at the Imperial Theater in October, 1972, and ran for 1,944 performances, winning four Tony’s, including Best Director and Choreography for Fosse, who became the first artist to win an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Tony all in the same year.

The host for this celebration of confusion is roguish magician and Leading Player, the radiant Samantha Barrios, whose sinfully beautiful voice and powerful presence ties the show together. Ms. Barrios plays the magnetic ring leader with flair and finesse, who is obsessed with putting on a great show for the audience. Masterfully charming and manipulative, the Leading Player is a chameleon of sorts. As narrator, she begins the story, describing a boy prince who is searching for existential fulfillment, guiding Pippin through his own story and adventures.

Executing Fosse’s dance creations superbly, she is extraordinary in the iconic dance break of “Glory.” Ms. Barrios does keep the original undertone of the Leading Player as a temptress, displaying a sinister, almost daunting overtone. But her vivid expressions, comedic style and dark nuances combine to effectively balance the characterization of the part. Sometimes sensual, sexy and alluring, Ms. Barrios’ depiction in this edition is more as a seducer to Pippin, pushing him closer and closer to the grand finale.

The venturesome Mr. Ray delivers a sweetly earnest Pippin with just a touch of nerd in a revolutionary poignant performance, shattering the mold in which this character has been caged in the past. In his characterization of Pippin, Mr. Ray not only presents layers of comedic line moments, yielding many of the robust laughs of the evening, but also shows in raw honesty the dark pathos and inner emotional battles Pippin endures regarding his purpose in life.

His “Corner of the Sky” is first-rate, and in a delightful surprise, his delivery in the number, “On the Right Track,” displays a magical transformation into a sublime dancer after previously exhibiting something of a rhythm deficit, executing choreography with awesome precision and out of this world energy.

As Charlemagne, Mr. Sparks does big, bold, and sly work, wearing the kingly robes commendably, funny in his inborn macho bluster and oddly touching in his relationship with his son. Pippin, who is desperate to prove himself a man, begs his father and half-brother Lewis (Sam Gianfala) to take him along into battle against the Visigoths. Charlemagne reluctantly agrees and proceeds to explain a battle plan to his men ("War is a Science"). Once in battle, the Leading Player re-enters to lead the troupe in a mock skirmish using top hats, canes, and fancy jazz to glamorize warfare and violence ("Glory"), with Ms. Barrios and two lead dancers tightly performing in the middle.

This charade of war does not appeal to Pippin, and he flees into the countryside. And so begins Pippin’s search to find himself, traveling throughout the country, first stopping at his exiled grandmother's estate ("Simple Joys"). There, the saucy, "free-love" advocate, Berthe (played by Joanna Churgin), tells Pippin not to be so serious and to live a little ("No Time At All"). Pippin takes this advice and decides to search for something a bit more lighthearted ("With You").

While he initially enjoys many meaningless encounters, he soon discovers that relationships without love leave you "empty and unfulfilled." Although naive, innocent, and discontented, he eventually finds real love and the meaning of life with Catherine (Megan Duquette) and Theo (Shawn Elliott Plunkett), her son. Catherine is a widow and mother – a hopeless romantic, who possesses graceful elegance, encountering Pippin at his lowest point, and eventually falling in love with him.

The Leading Player, ever listening, then persuades Pippin that he should fight the tyranny in the land, and cites his father, Charlemagne, as the ultimate fascist dictator to depose. So Pippin, believing this to be his destiny, plans a revolution to overthrow his own father, the king. Upon hearing the happy news, Pippin's conniving stepmother, Fastrada (Lyndsay Palmer), devious, crafty, untrustworthy…and dedicated to gaining the throne for her darling self-centered son, Lewis, is looking forward to both Charlemagne and Pippin perishing in the coup d'état so that her beloved Lewis can become king. Meanwhile, while Charlemagne is praying at Arles, Pippin assassinates him, and he becomes the new king ("Morning Glow").

Ms. Palmer, as the scheming wife (“Spread a Little Sunshine”), looks stunning and dances like a dream. Ms. Duquette also shines as the widow, Catherine. With a slight rasp in her voice and a personality that is endearingly innocuous, she is reticent and determined in “Kind of Woman,” giving us a delivery ringing with rectitude.

Eventually, over time and through many other trials and tribulations, Pippin comes to the realization that the widow's home is the only place where he is truly happy. Having experimented with every possible path to fulfillment, he feels humbled, and realizes that maybe the most fulfilling road of all is a modest, ordinary life.

Director Alison Boole has created besetting magic in this reimagined production of "Pippin," complete with illusions, dazzling effects, feats of gravity, sexual rawness and sensuality, especially in the numbers,“With You,” “Spread a Little Sunshine,” and the hilarious, yet sexy dance section when Pippin and Catherine find blissful amour.

She and Mr. Ray have warm chemistry that radiates on stage, and it becomes quite moving when the darkness of the piece begins to pour into the show like a foreboding mist, interrupting their romance. Both Pippin and Catherine are featured in the last six numbers of the show, among them, their duet, “Love Song,” which captures some heart-wrenching moments. Ms. Duquette’s declarative, “I Guess I’ll Miss The Man,” may even provoke some subterranean mistiness in a consummate performance.

Altogether, the show is a tour de force of vocal genius, athletic feats and exquisite acting, and the charisma of the entire company uniquely nonpareil. You come expecting entertainment, and you are definitely not disappointed. Even the musical's opening moments were attention-getting, with black lights and a sea of white-gloved hands.

But this musical freshening would not be the impeccable, stand out production it is without the members who make up the ensemble. All possess vocal beauty, perfect rhythm and execute Fosse’s choreography flawlessly, and includes Courtney Chu, Martin Feldman (also Charlemagne understudy), Samuel Goldman, Lynn Gutstadt, Victoria Miller, Glory Bamubile Mukanya, Fiona Okida, Roy T. Okida, Dorian Perez and Katie Ross.

The Sound Designer is also Alison Boole, Wig Master is Jon Sparks and Costumes are by Jon Sparks and Elizabeth Summerer. Scenic Design is by Shawn K. Summerer, Lighting by Robert Davis, and Graphics are by West Maatita. The show’s orchestra is conducted by Cheryl Gaul (also on piano), percussion is by Arthur Garrison, flute, piccolo and violin by Colleen Forward, bass is by Logan Hannig and guitar is by Dominic White.

Over the years of adapting this dark dramedy,“Pippin” has grown more comfortable and fun, so its grim, Fellini-esque ending may ambush those who, absorbed in spectacle, fail to notice the carnage along the way. Still aphotic to a large part, there has been a drastic shift in tone, but it’s also arguably a reflection of life. Our callow hero, Pippin, still takes us in with shiny, happy tricks, is still stalked by war, tyranny, patricidal impulses and assorted threats to his body and his dreams. We're just more distracted from that now by a bigger, more charismatic showbiz smile.

Kentwood Players’ “Pippin,” now playing at Westchester Playhouse through June 22nd, invites you to experience the world of this young son of fabled Emperor Charlemagne, heir to the throne. ”Pippin" is both a humorous allegory about growing up and a dark tale of the danger of false appearances and empty promises. Magical, mysterious and poignant, this “play within a play” reaches beyond the bounds of conventional theatre to challenge us to consider the meaning of life and what it means to live extraordinarily. So join us, won’t you? We’ve got magic to do.

Chris Daniels

Arts Reviewer

Photos courtesy of Gloria Plunkett

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