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REVIEW: "PIPPIN"—One More Productions @ The GEM Theatre

Updated: Mar 12

A fable packed full of art and imagination, swinging with life and scintillating dazzle!

"I'VE GOT TO BE WHERE MY SPIRIT CAN run free,” sings the boy prince in “Corner of the Sky,” one of many cherished songs from the racy musical “Pippin.” Hey, I can relate. And so, it seemed, could everyone around me, young and old, during a recent performance of the Stephen Schwartz (of “Godspell,” “Wicked” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” fame) and Roger O. Hirson’s coming-of-age medieval fable, which runs through March 31st in a kinetic, must-see revivification at the GEM Theatre in Garden Grove, produced by One More Productions.

Directed by Damien Lorton, the show is musically directed by Nick Bravo, and choreographed by Angela Mattern, Nicki Snelson & Damien Lorton.

Whether bulging with tuneful pop-rock songs, elementary existentialism or comedy that runs the gamut from campy to salacious, “Pippin” is massively and overwhelmingly entertaining, with uncurbed razzle-dazzle and a hot seduction of the audience. And, if you’re a fan of Bob Fosse, what will certainly be a strong focus is that much of his original mounting and choreography has been liberally implemented by this creative crew, taking an otherwise disarming and obliquely thoughtful libretto and launching it high into the stratosphere.

“Pippin” is, of course, about the handsome and talented son of the great Emperor Charlemagne, set in the year 780, and concerns the Holy Roman Empire. But…not too holy or imperially.

First played by John Rubinstein in 1972 as a hippie without a cause, “Pippin” has since been reconceived over the decades as a more contemporary emblem of innocence, and more importantly, a much cheerier incarnation, although it still hasn’t abandoned all of the ugliness. Pippin still has a driving force to be “completely fulfilled,” and is still stalked by war, tyranny, patricidal impulses and assorted threats to his body and his dreams. We’re just distracted from them now by a bigger, more charismatic showbiz smile.

 In this case that showbiz smile comes from the square-jawed, starry-eyed Hayden Mangum (“Into the Woods,” “The SpongeBob Musical,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”) as our story’s young and confused protagonist longing to find his purpose in life. Mr. Mangum, in his adorably clever trademark, has the face, hair, and voice of a tween-dream boy-band singer, suggesting that Pippin is like a Bieber in Wonderland with a bad case of a Middle Ages identity crisis. He’s so likable in part because he often looks overwhelmed, and it’s easy for the audience to empathize.

In his guise of playing a naive, innocent, and discontented young man, Mr. Mangum embraces all the natural grace and radiance needed for this Candide‐like hero. His vocal purity, especially when he unleashes the gorgeously soaring money notes in many of his numbers, his cleft dancing and easy authority make his performance one of the most impressive aspects of the evening.

Hirson’s concept has Pippin's career spelled out for him by a troupe of commedia dell'arte performers, presenting the show as part pageant, part caravan and part one-ring circus. There is a solitary figure called the Leading Player who is a cross between mistress of ceremonies and manager of the troupe. The Leading Player (in a sexy, vocally arresting performance by the lissome Nicole Cassesso) is not only masterfully manipulative but a chameleon of sweet connivance—as glossy and hard as polished stone.

Honed to a claw-sharp point, Ms. Cassesso’s sinewy seducer-in-chief charmingly guides Pippin through his story; her smile is more confrontational than invitational, never glimpsing the likable, fallible human beneath the gloss. She wears a sense of corruption and danger like a malevolent halo. With the Leading Player as a tour guide, well…the kingdom is definitely a place of menace and wonder.

Fastrada (Nickie Gentry) is Pippin's beautiful and duplicitous stepmother, a shrewd temptress who aims to “Spread a Little Sunshine.” Devious, crafty and amusingly cunning, Fastrada has only one objective—to gain the throne for her darling son, Lewis. Lewis (Hector Daniel Diaz) is Pippin’s lovably goofy half-brother and (after Pippin) heir to the throne. Addicted to the physical, Lewis loves weight lifting. Lewis loves wrestling. But most of all, Lewis loves Lewis.

Tim Klega has a hoot playing Pippin's bibulous and cynically demanding father, Charles. As the “good-to-be” King of the Holy Roman Empire, Mr. Klega's Charlemagne is more comfortable wielding a sword and ogling the ladies than breaking bread, wearing his years with great pride. Featured in the Gilbert and Sullivan‐style song, “War is a Science,” Charlemagne is planning a strategy for his army to do battle against the Visigoths. Throughout the song, Pippin tries his hardest to fit in with the soldiers, but always fails hilariously, with the tempo speeding up directly after each time Pippin interrupts.

Another one you can’t stop watching is Mary Desmond’s Catherine, the hopeless romantic who possesses natural and graceful elegance. When she encounters Pippin at his lowest point in the second act, she sets her cap for him and falls in love, creating a two-level character that you root for and care about.

Also, there’s Catherine’s young son Theo, played with endearing, loopy humor and sweet authenticity by Niles Gray (alternating with Kylie Stewart), a modern child who proves to be pivotal in the musical’s ending.

But it’s the veteran stage actress Beth Hansen (known for her one-woman shows throughout Orange County) who truly scales the heights. Ms. Hansen plays Berthe, Pippin’s saucy granny, a brassy, geriatric swinger full of wisdom, grace, and sass who tries to encourage Pippin to live his life to the fullest. Berthe has only one tremendous showstopper to call her own, but, boy does she own it. And while it would be a rotten spoiler to describe how she does it, I can say that her scene is the one that describes a more intimate sense of showbiz troupers making love to an audience.

The supporting cast is consistently thrilling, and the big numbers are on full throttle with turns like “Magic to Do,” “On the Right Track,” “Morning Glow,” and “Kind of Woman.”

The design elements work well, especially Director Lorton’s cabaret-appropriate ballerinas-in-a-dungeon costumes, with many of Fosse-reminiscent jazz hands seemingly sewn right into them. An array of black lingerie-as-outerwear intensifies the heat and emphasizes the provocative, gender-bending sensuality and razzle-dazzle staging, especially when Pippin goes full-on “Caligula” in his pursuit of meaning via indiscriminate hookups. Telling details enhance the subtext, and the effect is subtle but wonderful.

Over the number of decades since its 1972 original opening, this “Pippin” has grown much more comfortable and fun, so its Fellini-esque ending may ambush those who, absorbed in spectacle, fail to notice the carnage along the way. It may be considered a shift in tone, but it’s also arguably a reflection of life. In any event, One More Productions’ “Pippin” takes us in totally with its shiny, happy tricks, then, without even realizing, holds its mirror up to our nature.

But, from the first moment until the last, Director Lorton never loses his silk and velvet grasp on the show, giving it the pace of a roller derby and the finesse of a conjuror. Although Fosse’s choreographic style and spirit hover over and through the production (most notably in the faithful “Glory” number), Director Lorton adds touches and twists that energize the show in fresh, new ways. And an elite ensemble of impossibly beautiful triple threats tells the story in an evening of pure magical talent.

WITH: Hayden Mangum (Pippin), Nicole Cassesso (Leading Player), Tim Klega (King Charlemagne), Nickie Gentry (Fastrada), Mary Desmond (Catherine), Beth Hansen (Berthe), Hector Daniel Diaz (Lewis), Niles Gray (Theo), Taylor Danehower, Erik Diaz, Kara Dillard, Edvan Galvan, Courtney Hays, Julia Iacopetti, Angela Mattern, Nate Nolen and Matthew Rangel.

PIPPIN, Presented by One More Productions @ The GEM Theatre, Performing 2/22/2024 - 3/31/2024. Book by Roger O. Hirson; Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz; Directed by Damien Lorton; Musically Directed by Nick Bravo; Choreographed by Angela Mattern, Nicki Snelson & Damien Lorton. Approximately two hours and one intermission. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8PM, Sundays are 2PM. Tickets:

Chris Daniels

Arts & Entertainment Reviewer

The Show Report

Photo Credits: Ron Lyon



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