The Thinking Man's Idiot

The unruly brain and bad habits of a writer, artist, and grilled cheese sandwich-enthusiast.

Life is a Circus: ‘Pippin’ at the Berkeley Playhouse

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“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.”
– William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act II, Sc. VII, Ln. 138

There’s something equally pretentious and revealing about saying someone is “just putting on an act”. Revealing in how it suddenly makes us reexamine what we didn’t question at face-value; pretentious because it makes the person saying it sound as if they’re above such subterfuge. Everyone puts on an act and everyone always has. Your parents see one side of you, your classmates another; the people with whom you work know you in a different way than someone with whom you’re romantically involved; hell, the people at the DMV will see a different side of you than a judge in a court room. And the above lines can blur very easily.

Maybe we play these roles because they’re who we’re required to be, maybe it’s because they’re what we want to be – all of them contain an element of truth to them. In that way, it makes sense that the Kirsten Royston-designed set for Pippin resembles the make-up case of a professional performer, one who could perform their role in their sleep, if necessary. After all, Stephen Schwartz’s musical is about the roles life has assigned us and those we long for. What’s more, it’s about blurring those lines when things don’t always go to plan. That isn’t a sign of weakness, but rather adaptability.

If I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: what I love about the Berkeley Playhouse is that it’s the perfect place in which to see all the great musicals one hears about, but almost never has a chance to see. A theatre-geek like me probably should have seen Pippin ages ago, but somehow it always slipped past me. I know that it uses actual historical figures in a very loose fashion, but so does Evita, and I love that show.

Though this isn’t a Disney show, our eponymous lead (played adorably naïve by Kamren Mahaney) is daydreamer in the classic Disney sense. He wants more than to be the spoiled heir to the throne of Charlemagne (Brendan Simon), and he isn’t nearly as spoiled as his step-brother Lewis (Neal Pascua). Pippin is certain that he’s destined for greatness, whether that greatness take the form of war or usurping the throne (both of which he’s unprepared for), art or the cloth (both of which leave him unfulfilled). It isn’t until he meets the widow Catherine (Anne Clark) and her son Theo (Elijah Cooper on opening night) that he begins to consider whether having purpose is the same as having glory.

I can now see why the show is popular, as I really enjoyed the songs. Still, the show is a bit on the long side, and the ending seems to repeat its point over and over again. A lack of nuance is an accusation often thrown at Schwartz (particularly in regard to Wicked, which would be cool to see the Playhouse try one day), but I’ve always found that unfair. Schwartz might not have the lyrical finesse of that other Stephen (whose work I also love), but Schwartz is incredibly skilled at emotional cascading, but in his lyrics and compositions. Even when Pippin comes close to overstaying its welcome, the songs are at least enough to make the stay pleasant.

And it doesn’t hurt that it has a lot the Playhouse’s best putting the show on. Under the direction of Exec. Dir. Kimberley Dooley, the show is, if nothing else, lively. On opening night, there was a noticeable sequence in which the on-stage mics cut out. Fortunately for us, the cast had some real pipes at their disposal, able to belt out the strongest notes without electronic assistance. Speaking of whom, I notice that I’ve failed to mention that the play is told by a performing troupe who are retelling a story they’ve told many times over.

That’s pretty important, because Alex Rodriguez commands every moment on stage as the Lead Player. The role was originated by Ben Vereen and won Patina Miller a Tony for her 2013. Rodriguez’s gender-fluid take maintains the “evil Jiminy Cricket” quality with an unabashed showmanship that would be easy to overdo. It’s a role meant to command as much as have fun with – Rodriguez does both admirably. Yet, the show is almost stolen wholesale by Mary Gibboney as Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother. Both wise and lively, Berthe loves the fact that she isn’t dead yet, and wants to spread that love around. Gibboney is the perfect conductor for this feeling, leading the audience call-and-response in the show-stopping no time at all. Both wonderful stand-outs of an already-great cast.

Kirsten Royston’s set work is accentuated by Jeff Rowlings’ lights and Lyle Barrere’s sounds. Lisa Danz’s costumes and Lexie Lazear’s make-ups give everyone an interesting splash of color without coming of as garish. Allison Paraiso does another great job with the lively steps she gives the cast, and I hope Dave Maier had a lot of fun putting together the hilarious “war” sequence of the first act. Add in the sounds of musical director Michael Wiles and this makes for an excellent technical production for the Playhouse (and I saw it on the night of the aforementioned technical SNAFU).

It’s funny to say that Pippin slightly over-stays its welcome, given that it’s one of the longest-running shows in Broadway history. Still, the strengths of the show outweigh the weaknesses, explaining its extended popularity. What’s more, it’s another fine showcase of the Playhouse’s show-by-show journey through Broadway history. One may not always like their lot in life, but there are always good times to be had.

GRADE:                                                B+

Pippin is scheduled to run until the 5th of May at the Berkeley Playhouse.
The show runs roughly 2 hours with one 15 min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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