By Barry Reszel
Pippin‘s got guts.
The musical’s opening number, “Magic to Do,” makes outlandish promises to its audience. Its touring troupe of actors boast of an hour or two filled with Intrigue (plots to bring disaster); Humor (handled by a master); Romance (sex presented pastorally); Illusion (fantasy to study); and Battles (barbarous and bloody).
To be fair, the in-your-face current production at the new 50ish-seat Venus Cabaret space adjacent to the Mercury Theater checks off all these boxes, with one significant caveat. This is a bawdy, sexually-charged, intimate production; there’s nothing pastoral about it.
Ingenious Director L. Walter Stearns and talented Musical Director Eugene Dizon literally put their Pippin troupe into Venus patrons’ laps, celebrating the broken fourth wall between them, thereby making this telling of Stephen Schwartz‘s 1972 wonderfully introspective musical (nine Tonys between the original and the 2013 revival) an immersive experience.
Based loosely on historical characters, Pippin features a troupe of performers, led by the evil and electric Leading Player, telling the story of King Charlemagne’s son Pippin, a young prince trying to live out an extraordinary life which, he presumes, includes passion and adventure. Returning from scholarly study, he first tries war, next looks to fight tyranny, killing his father and taking over the over the throne. When he realizes his mistake and inability to fix society’s ills simply, Pippin begs the Leading Player to bring his father back to life; he agrees. Next, the young man feels despair, falls in love with a widow with a young son, and is left to decide between settling into a peaceful life or pursuing ultimate magic promised by the acting troupe.
A terrific, fuller synopsis and complete history of Pippin may be read here.
Roger O. Hirson‘s haunting story and Schwartz’s terrific score are brought to life at Venus with a terrific three-musician ensemble, stunningly choreographed by Brenda Didier and daringly costumed by Rachel Boylan with creative video designs by G. Max Maxin IV.
Onstage, brilliant Donterrio Johnson makes the sexy and diabolical Leading Player his very own. From from the first notes of “Magic to Do,” the show’s extravagant opening number, Johnson’s talent makes his performance equal to those of Ben Vareen and Patina Miller who played the Leading Player on Broadway.
The boyish good looks and resonant voice of Koray Tarhan allow him to take on Pippin‘s title role with tenderness and strength. His rendition of the soaring, well-known ballad, “Corner of the Sky,” is lovely. Additional musical highlights include “Morning Glow,” “Extraordinary” and the lovely Act 2 duet “Love Song,” with Nicole Armold as the kindly widow Catherine. Indeed, Armold’s rendition of “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man,” is a highlight in and of itself.
Veteran Chicagoland actor Don Forston is a funny, commanding and generally wonderful King Charlemagne (Charles the Great). His “War is a Science,” a challenging vocal exercise, is excellent. Starring in perhaps the best musical role written for a mature actress is another Chicagoland favorite, Iris Lieberman, as Pippin’s 66-going-on-27-year-old grandmother, Berthe. Her tender, comic and reflective “No Time at All” that includes audience participation implores her grandson (and each audience member) to live each day to its fullest.
And then. And then. And gentlemen and then… there’s the oozing sexuality from: Sawyer Smith as Fastrada; Adam Fane as Pippin’s half-brother Lewis; and hawt ensemble members Kayla Boye and Michael Rawls.
All of these talented elements combine to pose Pippin‘s mystic challenge: How are society’s alluring messages to its youth… “Reach for your dreams,” “Be extraordinary,” “You can do anything,” etc. authentic in the face of the reality that not everyone gets what they want every time?
The answer suggested by this magnificent telling is to appreciate the journeys, wherever they lead, and to always remember, every corner of the sky is made a little brighter with glitter.
Mercury Theater Chicago presents “Pippin” through December 16 at the Venus Cabaret Stage, 3745 N. Southport, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.