“Pippin” is Something Every College Student Should See
A strong director and cast bring the musical to Rarig
By: Joe Kelly
If there was one thing that dazzled in the University of Minnesota theater department’s production of “Pippin,” it was the dynamic choreography. Pair this along with colorful set pieces and costumes, a vocally strong cast, and you have yourself a great musical production.
However, for those who have never seen“Pippin,” the story is a confusing one. Scenes and characters appear out of the blue, leaving behind cause-and-effect storytelling and making it difficult to discern the story’s direction. The musical is inspired by the middle-age story of Charlemagne and his son Pippin, whose history is more speculative than factual.
A very lengthy first act showcases the main character’s experiences in finding himself. Interpretive song and dance numbers portray war, drugs, family conflict, and love, while a circus-like entourage follows Pippin around each scene. The narrator, a.k.a. the lead player of the circus group, takes the spotlight whenever Pippin’s life progresses.
In the second act, the story finally takes shape. Aiming messages directly at the audience, it fills in parts of the plot that were lackluster in the first act while less emphasis is placed on the spectacle of song and dance. The lead player and the circus entourage are really all inside Pippin’s head, and they encourage anyone to leave their current place in life to pursue the exciting and unknown. However, they lure one to try more and more dangerous things, and at one point in the show, they beckon the audience to join them. They symbolize the drive and insatiable hunger that individuals may have to find something more in their life.
Source material criticism aside, the show brought in director and choreographer, Joe Chvala, who is well-renowned for his percussive dance group, the Flying Foot Forum, and for directing shows at the Guthrie, Park Square, and Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Chvala’s work paid off in this production of “Pippin” as the cast enveloped the stage with complex dancing and movement that was almost overwhelming at times.
Pippin’s lead role had no better fit than Bradley Johnson. In a show that draws connections between college students and a courageous hero, Johnson has the perfect look: slim, young, and innocent. His vocals were nothing short of impressive and blended with the cast perfectly in popular numbers like “Morning Glow” and “Love Song.”
Another highlight of the show was Natalie Shaw, who plays Pippin’s eventual lover, Catherine. Although Shaw’s character is supposed to be a widow, she brought refreshing child-like moments and amusing flirtations while breaking the fourth wall. Shaw’s performance was what arguably drove the second act.
The rest of Pippin’s cast handled the show’s tricky and immense choreography and stage placement fairly well. One main actor struggled to hit the right notes on some vocally challenging songs but was a strong personality and character nonetheless. Songs with the whole cast proved to be immersive with harmonies that never seemed out of place. “Morning Glow,” which ended the first act, exemplified the cast’s unity and was definitely their strongest song. One number, “No Time at All,” incorporated crowd participation by having cast members hold set pieces with lyrics to the chorus, so that anyone could sing along.
Speaking of set pieces, “Pippin” had its fair share of unique parts. A red curtain and lights added to the circus theme, while banners and thrones were brought in for scenes between Pippin and his father and king, Charlemagne. A hula hoop and swing brought actors into the air, bringing one actor to a nerve-racking 10–15 feet above the stage. One of the most impressive pieces was a miniature enclosure that opened in three directions to reveal a bedroom, yet it could be easily rolled off stage.
Despite the confusing source material, “Pippin” was enjoyable and fun, while showcasing a story that is relatable to every college student by addressing the dangers of abandoning loved ones to follow abstract dreams. It’s ending argument may be controversial, but the U of M’s production made me fully embrace it. Making the audience support your message is something that not every production can do.