Pippin (Review)

Carnegie’s magical quest is a handsome and noble attempt at perfection

Meaning. Perfection. Absolute fulfillment. No easy things to find in life — or in musical comedy.

Pippin, the peripatetic hero of the appealing 1972 musical of the same name, dedicates his life to an ideal that always seems just beyond his grasp. The Carnegie Visual and Performing Arts Center and Northern Kentucky University’s Commonwealth Theatre Company’s current production of Pippin in Covington tries just as hard, in its own quest, with similar results. All in all, it’s a satisfying evening.

Director Ken Jones has assembled a fine showcase for some of his most talented NKU students, recent graduates and colleagues (chiefly music director Jamey Strawn, who pulls off miracles with his four-member pit), plus a few other local heavyweights: Jim Stump and Deb G. Girdler are perfectly cast as, respectively, Pippin’s father Charlemagne and his plucky grandmother Bertha. College-Conservatory of Music up-and-comer Jordan DeLeon brings humor and pizzazz to the Leading Player role made famous by Ben Vereen. Brooke Rucidlo plays Catherine, the deceptively “average, ordinary kind of woman” who appears in Act II, loves Pippin and brings the dreamer down to earth. It’s the show’s trickiest part, and Rucidlo (who will be a junior at NKU) again proves that she can do pretty much anything on the musical stage. And each member of the small but important Pippin ensemble adds beauty (there’s no hiding in Jeff Shearer’s costumes) and vitality to this sexy, satirical, and always surprising fable.

The production hits a few disappointing notes, though. Likeable and smart as he is, actor Chris Stewart doesn’t quite make it as Pippin, an “extraordinary” everyman who aspires to do and have it all. Stewart has good energy with Rucidlo, but no chemistry; their “Love Song” sounds nice but seems a tepid setup for Catherine’s heartbroken “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man” (which Rucidlo nails). Valerie Witherspoon is likewise miscast as the scheming stepmother Fastrada.

Pippin, which ran on Broadway for nearly five years in the mid-1970s, was a huge hit for composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz (now best known for Wicked, he conceived Pippin back in his student days at Carnegie Mellon), bookwriter Roger O. Hirshon and legendary director/choreographer Bob Fosse, whose stamp on the show can be seen here. His choreography has been recreated by Jane Green and Jay Goodlet.

Despite some flaws, including a much-debated and occasionally reworked ending (the version here feels overwrought), it’s still a great show with a delightful score. There’s been talk of a long-awaited Broadway revival next season directed by Diane Paulus (Hair, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess). For now, though, local musical lovers can be content (mostly) with this handsome and noble attempt at Pippin perfection. At its best, it’s magic.

PIPPIN, presented by the Carnegie Center in Covington, continues through Sept. 3. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.

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