Photograph by Nancy Fitzgerald
Wisdom of the Ages: Berthe (Coco Dolenz) imparts some valuable advice to young Pippin (Nathan Baynard) at Foothill Music Theatre.
The king's son, Pippin, hopes to find himself in an all-singing, all-dancing eighth century
By Marianne Messina
BACK AROUND 1972, when Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson first wrote the musical Pippin, there was a running joke about the so-called generation gap. The son/daughter says, "I've gotta find myself," and the parent retorts, "What do you mean? You're right here." In the musical, Pippin puts it, "Gotta find my corner of the sky"—by way of a song, naturally. Here, Pippin's dad, the eighth-century King Charlemagne, is a saint of forbearance. Having sent Pippin to Padua for an expensive college education, he accedes to Pippin's sudden desire to switch careers and become a soldier.
Of course, the king tries to talk Pippin out of it. He explains that the ideal soldier is everything Pippin isn't: "strong and stupid." Antiwar sentiments anyone? Foothill Music Theatre's production brings it on by flanking the slo-mo descent of broadswords with a slide presentation of the numbers killed and wounded in various wars, from World War I to—you guessed it—Iraq with "655,000 dead, 2 million refugees and counting." In the aftermath of battle, chorus liners come out in their black fishnet tights and sparkling bustiers to pick up bloody limb stumps and toss them in baskets.
In this production, Doug Baird's Charles is so easygoing and sympathetic, you'll wish you had him for a father. Except that when young Pippin (Nathan Baynard) leads an uprising and has a brief spasm of patricide, you wonder where all the hostility's coming from. Oh, but it's not hostility; it's just Pippin trying to find his place in the sky. Silliness aside, Foothill's youthful heart and humor make the middling songs, underachieving lyrics and Bob Fosse's ghost in the updated dance numbers enjoyable.
Baynard gives Pippin a wide-eyed, wide-smiling sweetness. Andrew Ceglio, as Pippin's jealous battle-ready half-brother Lewis, needs only the handlebar mustache to complete his portrayal. A leggy, red-haired Carrie Madsen oozes sensuality as Lewis' incestuous mother Fastrada, and stands out like a star in the ensemble numbers. The Fosse imprint shows especially strong in these numbers, where the devil's high-heeled and bust-amplified accomplices writhe, shimmy and make with the quaking hands.
Rudy Guerrero cuts a smart figure as the cane-wielding Impresario, a.k.a. "Leading Player," a.k.a. the devil. And costume designer Julie Engelbrecht brilliantly puts Guerrero in a tempting translucent black shirt that glints an iridescent red as the lights hit it. Guerrero has the slick, trim look, the graceful moves, the devilish smile, yet judging from this first-night performance, he needs to get more full of himself. You're the devil—you rule, remember?
Coco Dolenz makes Pippin's worldly wise grandmother Berthe memorable, though the band did little at this performance to enhance her brassiness. Englebrecht's handiwork, both subtle and garish, brings the show some panache. When the music goes lame and the story goes south, there's always Fastrada's gold-embroidered, burgundy velvet, slatted dress (for showing off sexy legs) to look at, or the flame girls' red bustiers decked with dangling red and gold feathers, or the glitter and sparkling body jewels of the ensemble. In terms of detail, the design of King Charles' gold crown matches an image of Charlemagne in stained glass that shows up on the projection screen.
Happily, the story gets more extraordinary when Pippin finally considers leading a life that's ordinary. This is when the hissing choristers, the flame girls and the devilish Leading Player slither in, promising fulfillment, outlining the universal choice between what we think life should be and what it is—and, at last, they give the lead character some conflict. Better late than never.
Pippin, a Foothill Music Theatre production, plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 2pm, with an extra 2pm show Saturday, March 10, through March 11 at the Foothill College Playhouse, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills. Tickets are $10-$24. (650.9489.7360)
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