Stephen Schwartz's 'Pippin' Earns a Tip of the Crown at North Coast Rep
by Cassiopeia Guthrie, July 29, 2023
When Roger O. Hirson and Stephen Schwartz first wrote the book, music, and lyrics to Pippin, it was with the interplay between reality and fantasy (with director Fosse's heavy influence in the dance) front and center. These components take center stage yet again in North Coast Rep's final presentation of the 41st season.
A story within a story, the musical follows a young man arriving at an abandoned theatre, only to discover that there are players there after all - magical, spooky ones - ready to help co-create a story from an old tome. The tale begins to unfold, a fictional story highlighting the recent graduation and search for meaning that Charlemagne's heir, Pippin, hopes to uncover as he ascends manhood. Thinking that he must prepare for his holy duty as leader, he follows his father and strong yet effeminate stepbrother, Lewis, off to battle. Discontent reigns and his continued search for greater meaning leads him into some decisions and situations that he never might have expected.
Director Nick DeGruccio, music director Ron Councell, and choreographer Roxane Carrasco have made the most of the sparce stage space at Solana Beach's theatre, built out in true Pippin fashion by set designer Marty Burnett to look aged and eerie. Snug fosse numbers and close crosses are most impressive when done with weapons in the infamous mid-show battle scene. Credit goes to Alyssa Kane for what must have been a fun prop design and sourcing adventure - this show has a lot of moving parts. Costumes too, by Zoë Trautmann, are right on mark, ranging from whimsical to period and back again quickly and effectively. Her choices are solid.
I also appreciate that North Coast Rep has chosen to use a live band here, featuring pianist/music director Councell, string player Nikko Noblezada, Mark Margolies on reeds, and Tom Versen on percussion. The band is well balanced and extremely talented and they add a lot to the overall tone of the show.
The cast of the production is also quite talented, though the evening I saw had some sound balance challenges that left them feeling tinny and, unfortunately, that seemed to make intonation a challenge for a couple of the actors.
Those moments aside, the ensemble was lively and committed, from repertory performers Katie Karel (Fastrada) and Katy Tang (Catherine) to stellar newcomers Robert Zelaya (Leading Player) and James Oblak (Lewis). The other talented actors in the production included Brendan Dallaire (Pippin), Spencer Kearns (Theo), Jason Maddy (Charlemagne), Gracie Moore (Berthe), and Amy Smith and Leslie Stevens (Players).
And while the show's second half, a bit dark, never makes it quite out of gravitas leaving Pippin just a bit heavy, well played periodic moments of humor on behalf of the performers (and clever timing thanks to the director) ultimately left the audience laughing and applauding into bows.
All in all, it seems this royal story of magic and intrigue was well received as Pippin paves the transition for the theatre into season 42.