Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Pippin, Cain Park

(Corey Mach as Pippin and Jessica L. Cope as Leading Player)

Coming of age stories are irresistible for writers of all stripes, from short story scribblers and novelists to those who construct musicals. Indeed, one of the most popular musicals of all time, The Fantasticks, is about how a young man travels from innocent naivete to the beginnings of worldly wisdom.

And so it is for the title character in Pippin, now playing at Cain Park, the story of the son of Charlemagne who graduates from college and sets out to find fulfillment. The book by Roger O. Hirson and the 1970s-style pop music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz trace a fairly predictable arc, but this production brings them to life in some surprisingly electrifying, as well as a few off-putting, ways. Thanks to Victoria Bussert’s energetic direction and the something-borrowed, something-new choreography of Martin Cespedes, the entire evening has more hits than misses.

Dominating the landscape Pippin occupies is the Leading Player, who employs her troupe of kinkily-clad actors to introduce the young man to the ugly realities of tyranny, war, family strife and shattered dreams. Along the way, Pippin seeks shelter with his beloved grandmother Berthe and ultimately with a widow Catherine (a game Devon Yates), her son and their mundane life.

This is a lot of territory to negotiate in a little over an hour and a half, but the Cain Park company manages it well, for the most part. In the role of the Leading Player, usually a man, Bussert has cast Jessica L. Cope. Looking like Doris Day from the neck up (platinum hair and page boy bob) and Cher from the neck down (circa “If I Could Turn Back Time”), she exerts a menacing force on the budding Pippin. Even though Cope doesn’t have complete control of her voice in some of the more demanding songs, she sells them all.

As Pippin, Corey Mach sings with passion, bringing a youthful sense of striving to “Corner of the Sky” and “Extraordinary.” But his costume by Production Designer Russ Borski sends him off in the wrong direction. Dressed in contemporary style with a sleeveless shirt revealing his guns and his underwear waistband peeking out over his jeans, Mach seems swaggering and hip instead of earnest and innocent. As a result, his moments of catharsis, such as when he confronts the grisly carnage of war, don’t register as powerfully as they should.

Chris McCarrell, who’s as thin as a fireplace match, burns hot as he lends an aura of androgynous menace to Lewis, Pippin’s brother, while Maryann Nagel as Berthe battles a hideous outfit and her overly-uplifting song “No Time At All” to a draw. Jay Ellis sings well as Charles, Pippin’s father, but doesn’t take any chances with his portrayal of this conflicted character.

The real stars of this production are the group numbers, with some mesmerizing participants such as Antwaun Holley and Jens Lee. As the ensemble dances with flash and flashlights, and a snarl hidden by smiles, they try to lead Pippin to his ultimate fate, his perfect “Finale.” And that’s what makes this Pippin pop.

Through August 23 at the
Alma Theatre,
Cain Park,
corner of Lee and Superior,
Cleveland Heights, 216-371-3000

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