“Shout it out from the highest tower—” “The Kentwood Players”, the resident company housed in the Landmark “Westchester Playhouse” in Los Angeles California, are presenting “Pippin”! Featuring music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz with a book by Roger O. Hirson, the original production was directed by Bob Fosse (who also contributed to the libretto.) This new staging at “The Westchester Playhouse” is Directed and Choreographed by Alison Boole, with Musical Direction by Catherine Rahm. By adopting a mix of elements from the original Broadway production and various other versions that followed (most notably the 2013 Roundabout Theater Company revival,) Boole and her cast have created something wholly their own—and wholly wonderful at that.
Making its Broadway debut in 1972, this Multi Award-Winning Musical follows the pseudo-historical events in the life of “Pippin”—The ‘first-born son of Charlemagne’ who longs to step out from behind his illustrious father’s shadow and find abiding passion and meaning in his own life. A delightful and thought-provoking musical with a lush, contemporary score, a black screen revealing a flock of fluttering ‘Jazz-hands’ poking through, kicks things off and into high-gear at the commencement of the opening, “Magic To Do” (fundamentally apprising us what we’re in for.) Once it rolls off, we’re formally greeted by the enigmatic “Lead Player” of a roving band of medieval thespians, who all exhibit phenomenal enthusiasm and energy throughout. Per their auspices, we are lead through “their anecdotal revue” (“A tale of lust, murder and Holy War” we’re informed,) which explores “Pippin’s” various adventures and misadventures as he strives to do “Extraordinary Things”, only to find that the life that may suit his best is full of ‘simple joys’ with a young widow named “Catherine” and her small son, “Theo”. Act Two finds our hero out in the country on the farm of this widow who will become his lady love (—literally depicted by his getting shot with one of Cupid’s infamous arrows!) In fact, the entire second half of the show is primarily dedicated to the couple’s growing involvement. Naturally, there’s still the little matter of his insufferable attitude that has “Pippin” now acting like a temperamental teenager (think Justin Bieber—in deed as well as looks!) It all reaches a feverish zenith culminating in what the “Lead Player” exhorts as “A climax never before seen on a public stage!” It is only when he is faced with delivering on this impossible promise that “Pippin” ultimately realizes: “I’m not a river or a giant bird that soars to the sea–and if I’m never tied to anything, I’ll never be free…”
Schwartz’s cutting-edge score (his first for a major Broadway show) adeptly combines the best elements of ‘old school’ classic musicals from the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s with the more ‘contemporary’ sound favored by such blockbusters of the day as “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Hair”. Ms. Boole’s direction prudently capitalizes on these melodic strengths, with her overall concept evoking a kind of “Laugh-In” meets “Barnum And Bailey” ambience. By the same measure, ranging from traditional ballet to elegant ballroom, to some down and funky 1970’s footwork, Boole’s re-imagined phrases are more an ‘homage to’, rather than a complete replication of, Fosse’s original choreography. For instance: In “War Is A Science” (Charlemagne’s ‘war council’ which includes his two sons,) her ‘maneuvers’ are innovative and sprightly once the number swells into a kind of feudal-era ‘drill team’ with those engaged capering in unison with a dapper soft-shoe sequence whither the dancers (clad in helmets and armor plates) use their ‘swords’ as canes. This is followed almost immediately after with “Glory”, at which time the “Lead Player” (done up in a silver lamé jacket and straw ‘boater’ hat,) is joined by two more seasoned dancers, and the trio trot into a more ‘vaudevillian’ exchange that’s a fantastic recreation of Fosse’s original moves (–which were also seen nationwide as the basis for a ground-breaking ‘commercial’ the iconic Director devised to promote the original production—a feat never before done for a Broadway musical.) It’s a stunning little interlude and a testament to the deftness and flair of all three who execute it here! For “Simple Joys” she also incorporates a nifty ‘ribbon dance’ between the verses to go with the top-notch vocals (not to mention even more lavish costumes!) The markedly effective thing Boole accomplishes with her sagacious use of dance though, is by making much of it act as a kind of punctuation for larger (often solo) pieces, such as with the sensuous ballet intermezzo toward the close of “With You”—which then suddenly changes into some spirited free-form ‘froog’-ing, ‘hopping’, ‘bopping’ and ‘gyrating’ once the stage lights turn salacious red (“Boy when you frolic, you really frolic!” the “Lead Player” tells our lad afterwards.)
Likewise, another lively “Disco/Go-Go” inspired bit takes place between “Fastrada” and “Lewis”, capping off “Spread A Little Sunshine”; then, “Morning Glow” is a gallant and galvanizing full-company enterprise (–and a capitol way to end the first act!) as “Pippin”, having had a sampling of battle—and not liking it, sets his sights on his father’s throne (that is, before younger brother “Lew” can grab hold of it ahead of him!) Post Intermission, when “Pippin” and “Catherine” finally get together (and get down to business,) their ‘carnal’ connection is cleverly (and cleanly) conveyed by dancers Sam Gianfala and Fiona Okada (each clad in sultry crimson) performing a sweeping, interpretive Pas-De-Deux. The finale—while always considered ‘eccentric’ (even for a Bob Fosse musical) is nonetheless intense and dramatic, after which Pippin”, when asked how he feels opines:” Trapped—but happy!” Two additional words that, for anyone familiar with the show’s storied history, are sure to be aware, were the source of more than a little contention between Fosse and Schwartz—Fosse preferring the ending to be kept more cynical; Schwartz insisting it be more optimistic. In this case, Boole wisely opts for this latter option and this production is all the more satisfying for it.
Instigating all the action, Samantha Barrios is the aptly monikered, “Lead Player”. Half seductress, half dominatrix, her general approach to the role is something akin to “Betty Boop” meets “Cat-Woman” or “Poison Ivy” (both of “Batman” fame.) “Don’t get her mad,” we’re warned at the opening; “she’s very scary!” Even so, despite spending much of the show decked out in body-hugging faux leather, she’s more tease than sleaze. Acting as a narrator and an active participant in all that unfolds on-stage, she manages to be thoroughly entrancing in each aspect of her decidedly complex role. Moreover, her voice favors a genial “Top 40” quality reminiscent of “Petula Clark” or even “Marianne Faithful” in her formative years. Her initial offering, “Magic To Do” is a full-throated, soulful rendition—giving her command over the proceedings straight away before the whole cast joins in, with the net result being an awesome round of group harmony (—to say nothing of a triumph for them all!) Barrios also excels with “Simple Joys” and “On The Right Track”, seemingly channeling her “Inner Joan Baez” –and even “Aretha Franklin” (particularly amidst this ensuing tune, which has her giving out with some undeniably super-charged ‘money notes’ at its ride-out.)
As the primary focus of all her machinations and our titular protagonist, Kyle Ray is “Pippin”. Boyishly handsome with a fresh and unassuming demeanor, he makes his preliminary appearance from the audience, where he is supposedly a hapless spectator ‘chosen’ to play the part for this evening’s festivities. Just wait until he sings though–then the grandeur of his silky tenor voice categorically starts to be felt! Every iota as significant though, is the way Ray adroitly keeps us active and believably engaged with him as he goes on this incredible series of escapades–his journey, is our journey too. Even greater, in this, the titular role, he’s given plenty of numbers with which to captivate and transfix us–and he never disappoints beginning with his inaugural solo, “Corner Of The Sky”. Another utterly remarkable moment that demonstrates how rich a tonal quality Ray can lay claim to, materializes in “With You”–which also validates that he’s just as capable a dancer besides, when he and a bevy of ‘maidens’ rock-out and groove as he ‘sincerely’ assures each one he wants them to : ‘Dance in my dreams; to shine when I need the sun, with you to hold me when dreams are done…and oh, my dearest love, if you will take my love, then all my dreams are truly begun.” At the completion of Act One, Ray dazzles all over again with the buoyant “Morning Glow”—arguably among the finest songs ever written by Composer Schwartz and a sensational inclusion to “Pippin’s” score. Act Two occasions his “Extraordinary”—“Pippin’s” ode to petulance and over-privilege as he’s backed by several members of the ensemble guised as cows, pigs and peasants. It too, may be slightly unusual—but it’s an energetic and highly enjoyable ‘barnburner’. Just before this however, “On The Right Track” proves to be an equally impressive addition to Mr. Schwartz’s oeuvre. Sung opposite Barrios who ‘officiates’ as his subconscious guide, this is where Ray positively cuts loose—evincing a substantive degree of passion which surprisingly lie beneath the lyrics. His concluding “Magic Shows And Miracles” is fittingly introspective adding yet another dimension to Kyle’s sublime way with expressing and illuminating many of Schwartz’s multileveled lyrics.
Although she doesn’t appear until, after the act break, Megan Duquette is sincerely worth waiting for as the young widow “Catherine”. Indeed, her arrival brings a certain coherency to the proceedings less apparent in the more ‘episodic’ nature of the act prior. Explaining how she found Pippin on the side of the road and brought him home to nurse him back to health, she essentially ‘launches’ the second act with the expositionary “And There He Was”, which quickly segues into her introductory, “Kind Of Woman”. Backed by a green-clad quartet of ‘doo-wop’ girls, through these we’re clued in on Duquette’s amiable, laid back manner as she croons “I’m your average ordinary kind of woman; competent and neat, making life a treat. Others as nice you meet often I know (at least once or twice every Lifetime or so…)” Later, she strums the heartstrings with her affecting 11 O’Clock ballad, “I Guess I’ll Miss The Man”. Sung nearly à Capella, she furnishes us with another lovely moment wherein she displays more of that sweet, lilting, “Tammy Wynette” quality to her song-styling. Together with Ray, their “Love Song” evokes some outstanding harmony while also making known just how pleasantly their voices complement one another. As Pippin’s father, “Charlemagne”, Jon Sparks bestows a boisterous personality and a booming resonance, infusing his characterization with just the right touch of ‘theatricality’ one would expect from so eminent and legendary a figure; at the same time, he also interjects a few less lofty, more ‘human’ moments making his slant more well-rounded than has often been seen. His inaugural descant, “Welcome Home Son” is a solid introduction to his vocal ability, before he consummately traverses his way around the tongue-twisting lyrics of “War Is A Science”– a bona-fide crowd pleaser early on which also utilizes two comely ‘mademoiselles’ as a ‘human map’ for his ‘Majesty’s” next proposed martial campaign. When his eldest son asks him whether fighting wars is important to a king, “Charlemagne” replies: “Fighting wars is the most important part of being king!” Lyndsay Palmer is herself enticing and fun as his ‘wife’, “Fastrada”—“crafty, cunning, untrustworthy…but a warm and wonderful mother, dedicated to gaining the throne for her darling son, ‘Lewis’”: “I’m an ordinary housewife and mother—just like all you housewives and mothers,” she keeps reminding us; as for her distinguished husband’s opinion, he states bluntly: ”You know, sometimes I wonder if the fornicating I’m getting is worth the fornicating I’m getting!” Her ‘sweet as saccharine’ solo, disarmingly titled “Spread A Little Sunshine” is well sung and deliciously devious as she attempts to convince us of her inherent virtue: “I know the parables told in the holy book–I keep close on my shelf. God’s wisdom teaches me when I help others, I’m really helping myself…”
“Pippin’s” saucy Grandmother “Berthe” (of whom we learn, has been exiled from court due to “a personality conflict with her daughter-in-law”,) is played by Joanna Churgin who practically steals the show! Her time in the spotlight may be relatively fleeting, but she definitely incandesces while she’s there. It is she “Pippin” turns to when he needs some commiseration on his quest, which prompts her brilliant solo “No Time At All”: Now, I’ve known the fears of sixty-six years–I’ve had troubles and tears by the score; But the only thing I’d trade them for is sixty-seven more!” she informs him. This also integrates a dandy bit of audience participation—before which though, she sternly cautions: “You can help with the choruses—but the verses are ALL MINE!” Sam Gianfala also provides stand-out support as “Fastrada’s” son and “Pippin’s” conniving brother “Lewis” (historically known as “Louis The Pious”.) Boasting dashing good-looks in the mode of a young Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power, along with an exceptional terpsichorean talent, Gianfala refreshingly steers away from the standard (and overdone) ‘over grown baby’ or ‘simpleton jock’ favored in way too many previous interpretations; instead, he refreshingly paints “Lewis” as just plain over-confident with the right dash of arrogance and swagger, thus making him at least understandable, if not sympathetic (and oh, can this chap dance!) Shawn Elliott Plunkett too, is also terrific as “Theo”—“Catherine’s” feisty pre-adolescent son who gets many of the best ‘reaction’ or ‘laugh’ lines. Although vocally, his duties are pretty much limited to an odd little ditty called “Prayer For A Duck” (in which he and “Pippin” pray for “Theo’s” ailing pet,) and a quick solo reprise of “Corner Of The Sky”, he more than capably handles each. Little wonder that it is he who, in due course, gets the last word (or should that be, last note) of the show before ushering in the curtain calls.
Shawn K. Summerer’s set design is a commendable example of ornamented simplicity and functionality, consisting of two small sets of stairs on either side of the stage, with the seven piece orchestra (under the direction of Cheryl Gaul, who also serves as pianist,) are situated on an elevated upstage platform—behind all the action and partially obscured by an expansive center stage screen for slide-projections. Not to be out done or overlooked either are Robert Davis’s vibrant Lighting Designs and Projections (often with one word ‘themes’ labeling the episode to follow.) These successfully accentuate or augment both the sets and costumes, while interpolating their share of color, sparkle and amazement in their own right! The production’s crowning glory though, are the ornate costume designs encompassing a wide variety of colors, patterns, genres and fashions, by Jon Sparks and Elizabeth Summerer which are worthy of a surfeit of awards in themselves! From “Charlemagne’s” stately green velvet robe and “Fastrada’s” peacock feathered bodice with matching midnight-blue skirt, to the “Lead Player’s” glistening “Joey Heatherton-redux” flashy silver jacket, or “Pippin’s” over-sized “War Head-Dress” (—complete with a flamboyant rainbow plume) and even “Lewis’s” gleaming breast-plate ceremoniously donned over his bare-chested leather ‘harness’, you’ll be seriously challenged deciding which you like better or are more astounded by.
“They have magic to do—just for you…” so head on over to “The Westchester Playhouse” to get acquainted with The Kentwood Player’s “Pippin”! Having opened on Friday, May 17th, the show is set to play through Saturday, June 22nd, 2019. Showtimes are Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 PM, with Sunday Matinees at 2:00 PM. “The Westchester Playhouse” is located at 8301 Hindry Avenue in the Westchester area of Los Angeles, CA. Tickets may be obtained online by logging onto: www.kentwoodplayers.org or e-mailing the box-office at: email@example.com ; via phone, by calling: (310) 645-5156 during box-office hours: Wednesdays through Saturdays from 4:00 PM–7:00 PM. (Discounts for Students, Seniors and Groups of 10 or more are also available for this engagement.)
Production Stills by Gloria Plunkett, Courtesy Of “The Kentwood Players”; Special Thanks To Alison Boole, Catherine Rahm, Marie Madera Gleerup, Jeremy & Lyndsay Palmer And To The Cast And Crew Of “The Kentwood Players” 2019 Production Of “Pippin” For Making This Story Possible.