Based on the life of Charlamagne’s oldest son, the musical Pippin hit the ground running, opening on Broadway in the 1970’s, directed by Bob Fosse and featuring Ben Vereen as the Ringmaster. Using a circus motif, the players converge to tell the story of Pippin, a prince who is hungry to taste everything the world has to offer, after getting high marks and a degree from the university. He explores war, religion, politics, monarchy, agrarian life; he assassinates his father and supplants him on the throne. His conniving step-mother plots to overthrow him for the sake of her son and the younger prince, Lewis. From the beginning the avid, jovial, acrobatic troupe promise a phenomenal, exciting finale that will knock us on our collective tuchas.
Pippin’s structure is odd, if intriguing, advancing the narrative with lots of gags and digressions, using ingenuity and vaudevillian nonsense (as well as juggling and other dazzling hi-jinks) to keep the story bouncing. Pippin is skinny and young, charming, deferential, the least glamorous of the cast. War teaches him how cheaply life can be forfeited, the church about corruption, the monarchy about the difficulties of responsibility. There’s a thread of merriment and whimsy informing this spectacle. Pippin has a conversation with decapitated soldier. His grandmother instructs him in the ways of hedonism, and leads us in a singalong. We are privy to the courtship between Catherine and Pippin, in which she wins him over at least as much by craft as charisma.
The finale is something of a quandary, as the show culminates in Pippin’s choice, but doesn’t really seem to affect our enjoyment. Seems Pippin must choose between a vibrant, breathtaking existence, chock full of daring and celebrity, or a dull life on the farm with Catherine and her young son, Otto. Pippin makes the “right” decision, though you might suggest that even Einstein probably wrestled with ennui and a farmer might find beauty in birthing a foal. That being said, it seems to hold up better upon post-show reflection.
This is my third time to see a musical directed by Derek Whitener, who has a brilliant, intuitive feel for staging joyful, memorable shows. He makes these enterprises seem effortless and electrifying. Pippin is a warm, charming, saucy, experience, with gobs of dash and convivial energy. It’s touching and hilarious, wise and giddy. It sparks a spontaneous joie de vivre that puts any momentary cynicism to shame.
The Firehouse Theatre presents Pippin, directed by Derek Whitener (Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, Book by Roger O. Hirson) playing July 19th-August 20th, 2017. 2535 Valley View Lane, Farmers Branch, Texas, TX 75234. (972) 620-3747. www.thefirehousetheatre.com