For Monumental Theatre’s updated take on the Tony-winning musical Pippin (), director Rebecca Wahls mingles merriment with elements of millennial culture. Toying with Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson’s fictional history of the son of Charlemagne, the production leans heavily on keeping things current. In fact, it leans to the point of nearly tipping over the brink, with copious selfie snapping and references to social media and “fake news.” Thankfully, both director and cast eventually bring home the title character’s odyssey across an empire and towards his version of living a fulfilling life. And the marriage of medieval with up-to-the-minute makes more sense.
Muddying the waters at first are visuals which don’t render the most decisive vision of fanciful anachronism. Scenic designer James Raymond’s set periodically appears to get in the way of itself and the actors, and the lighting often diminishes more than it adds. Kateri Kuhn’s costumes, so fresh and crisp on Tiziano D’Affuso and Solomon Parker, as Pippin and the Leading Player respectively, don’t nail right now, or way back when, to much cohesive effect on the supporting cast.
Yet, D’Affuso and Parker do generate a cohesive partnership guiding the troupe of players that’s telling this woeful tale of the prince of the Holy Roman Empire. Though the tale may be woeful, laced with brutality and betrayal plotted by King Charles (DeCarlo Raspberry) and his wife Fastrada (Rachel Barlaam), the musical numbers are as vibrant and sensual as a Bob Fosse daydream.
Wahl’s ensemble and Ahmad Maaty’s choreography ooze the teasing spirit and crotch-thrusting chorus lines of the indelible 1972 Broadway original. Although, as fun as the vigorous dance breaks are for the audience, and for as much fun as the performers seem to be having, occasionally the groovy interludes don’t just shake up, but actually derail the narrative flow.
Good that Parker provides such a strong presence to keep things on track. And, among the ensemble, none captures that Fosse spirit and those recognizably slinky moves as sharply as his Leading Player, who still might stray too close to the dark side in pushing Pippin into his big finale.
D’Affuso, more convincing singing Schwartz’s soulful score than dancing to it, gives a compelling performance that captures the scope of emotion presented in Pippin’s rocky coming-of-age. From brash, naïve scion of power comically marching into “War Is a Science,” to the wiser man who emerges, following a brief segue into wanton sexuality, as a potential lover to the humble widow Catherine (Chani Wereley), D’Affuso’s Pippin charts an extraordinary journey.
And D’Affuso’s subtle performance proves the key to making Wahl’s contemporary take click. Well-supported by comic turns from Barlaam as Pip’s evil stepmom Catherine and Justin Sumblin as her bumbling son Lewis, D’Affuso leads an intriguing quest that connects the historical epic to a current age of young people eager to march into wars they didn’t create and might not know how to fight.
In search of something completely fulfilling, this Pippin ultimately must decide between chasing the glory of likes and clicks, or merely relishing the adoration of his family, in their little corner of the sky.
Pippin runs until July 30 at Ainslie Arts Center, Episcopal High School campus, 3900 W. Braddock Rd., Alexandria. Tickets are $40. Visit monumentaltheatre.org.
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André Hereford covers arts and entertainment for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @here4andre.
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