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June 6, 2003

Pippin comes of age on the First Floor stage

I have bad memories of Pippin. Mind you, I am generally a strong proponent of musical theater, and value the efforts of just about any production, even Cats. That said, I approached my first viewing of Pippin, in my sophomore year of high school, with high expectations for a rollicking good time, not just because I enjoy the medium, but also because my school's theater department regularly churned out excellent shows.

But, for whatever reason, I left the theater that night with a bad taste in my mouth. The production was not without its glitzy, giddy high points, but it failed to inspire even my keen song-retention skills. I guess I just didn't care much for Pippin the protagonist, as the diminutive junior playing him had little stage presence and not much of a voice. I didn't really care for him or his story. And the supposedly grand finale kinda sucked, too.

So, it was with trepidation that I approached Wednesday night's premiere of Pippin, a University Theater production directed by fourth-year Derek Brockbank. Four-and-a-half years later, the show remained one of the few musicals that called forth unpleasant reminiscences for me, and I was hoping that this collegiate production would ease my pain. Fortunately, I am happy to report that Brockbank's Pippin has proved to be the castor oil for my mind: it is indeed a cure-all.

Maybe the problem I had with Pippin when I first saw it was its meandering pace and seeming insubstantality. Although musical theater is not known for its incisive social commentary, Pippin seems especially content to wander in circles of self-referentiality and quaint musical hijinks, before finally blowing itself up in the end. It's one of the more meta musicals I've seen, as it continually comments on its own musical-ness. The first time, not knowing what to expect, this annoyed me to no end. But the second time through, I found the show to be charming in its utter playfulness. As Brockbank says in his director's notes, "If there is any meaning to be found, it can only come by not looking for it."

Brockbank's cause was helped immeasurably by having a cast as enthusiastic as the one that graced the First Floor Theater. Though he may have been constrained by budget and lack of space, Brockbank, with the help of his skilled crew, made the intelligent decision of choosing a talented but relatively small cast, as well as emphasing the use of clever props in place of large, glitzy setpieces. The result was an intimate Pippin, one that allowed the audience to grow comfortable with the performers, and be more willing to sing along when the time came for en masse choruses.

The story of Pippin, the eldest son of Charlemagne, couldn't be much simpler: boy prince doesn't fit in anywhere, boy wanders, boy finds girl, boy loses girl to indifference, boy almost gets incinerated, boy returns to girl, boy settles (both literally and figuratively). Although Pippin is sometimes frustrating in his resistance to satisfaction, as he tries his hand at war, promiscuity, and farming, we also find him endearing, as he is played with much pluck and exuberance by fourth-year Garrett Ard. With a strong singing voice and expressive body movements, his Pippin is a hero worth rallying around.

Pippin's world is populated by a cast of colorful characters, each with their own advice and philosophy on how one should live. Though we've been warned not to look for meaning in the young prince's story, one can't help but identify with Pippin's quest to be free, or to ramble like the river, fly like the eagle, et cetera. This is especially true in light of King Charlemagne's personal maxim of spreading Christianity across the land, despite the bloodshed and turmoil that he may leave in his wake. Does this remind anyone of someone we know? I guess I could never have known how relevant Pippin would prove to be in the spring of 2003 when I first saw it in the fall of 1998.

Of course, this accidental social commentary is purely incidental; although we can read behind the score and book of Pippin, what we see only takes on meaning in a certain time and place. Otherwise, they're just goofy potshots. "It doesn't take things too seriously, but the issues are in there," says Brockbank. "It doesn't smack you over the head trying to be timely."

The show is a lot of self-aware fun, with slinky dance numbers, over-the-top characters, and anthropomorphized stuffed ducks. The actors realize that it's just a musical comedy, and the audience appreciates their full commitment to the show despite this self-consciousness. From Ben Fink's pompous Charlemagne to Alex Corey's often-maniacal Leading Player, and from Fay LaManna's hyper-sexed granny Berthe to Jeff Roudabush's all-purpose Scottish sex toy, each character lived-up to the expectations of the fullest musical exaggeration.

When the show finally fizzles out, it seems like a more fitting end than I remembered from my first encounter with Pippin. It would be unfair of me to reveal much more than to say that Pippin finally finds his place in the world when the world that he once knew collapses. Perhaps this says something about the illusion of artifice, that we are meant to look beyond the conventions of society to find our true identity and function. Or maybe we are meant to just sit back and enjoy the magic that is the well-performed musical. Against my U of C instincts, I'll take the latter.