- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2003

Under the direction of Thomas W. Jones II, “Pippin,” the 1970s musical about Charlemagne’s son — who seeks out an extraordinary life and winds up finding inner peace — receives a clamorous updating that includes elements of rap, hip-hop, funk, gospel and smooth, jazzy rhythm and blues.

The urban rhythms may be more palatable to a modern audience and the “Rent” crowd, but the score’s melodies are lost in a storm of noodling keyboards and guitars — and forget about learning character and story through song. The show’s sweetly idealistic lyrics — about war’s deadly toll, the fleeting pleasures of free love and the search for meaning — are either barely distinguishable in the sound mix or the singers are stretching notes, Whitney Houston-style.It might wow ‘em on “American Idol,” but it has nothing to do with mastery of a melody.

“Pippin” spawned many pop hits from the ‘70s for groups such as the Jackson Five and the Supremes, including: “Corner of the Sky,” “Morning Glow,” “Magic to Do” and “Spread a Little Sunshine,” but — overproduced and delivered with little subtlety — these songs are hardly recognizable in Round House’s production.

A simple line such as “Got to find my corner of the sky” becomes an opportunity for empty showboating, as the eight words morph into “got to fi-HI-HI-HI-nd my co-OR-OR-OR-OR-OR-ner of the sky-HI-HI-I-I-I-I-I!” dragging the song out and making an already long musical longer.

Do not look for Bob Fosse’s sinuous, tongue-in-cheek choreography, which incorporated circus-y movements with popular dance steps from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Choreographer Patdro Harris has done away with most of Mr. Fosse’s numbers. That’s actually a good thing here, as he has replaced them with infectious, high-energy (and often gravity-defying) choreography — a sort of mingling of street culture and Ringling Brothers. This carnival-circus theme is furthered by the high-tech set, a ring jazzed up by prism light effects; and the costumes, which are mostly variations on the leotard or harlequin costume, only with fripperies that constantly seem to get in the way.

There is no lack of talent and high spirits in “Pippin,” but cohesion and polish are in short supply.

Granted, the musical is supposed to be bawdy and brash, a combination of medieval revelry and National Lampoon-style sophomoric shtick. But here, the bratty, youthful edge of “Pippin” seems forced, so the result is not gleefully insolent, merely loud.

The overall loudness of “Pippin” extends to the performances, which is unfortunate, since there is a wealth of talent on the stage. The Leading Player (Jahi A. Kearse), the trickster-type character who leads Pippin (Anthony Manough) on his journey of experience and self-knowledge, is snaky and sexy, and you actually believe he possesses transformational magic in his hands.

Yet the nuanced ironies of his character are lost, because the gifted Mr. Kearse has to compete with a production that steamrolls over anyone who isn’t turning back flips and somersaults every second. Mr. Manough, another acting and singing force to contend with, never has the opportunity to get a grip on Pippin’s character. Is he the spoiled son of the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, or a questing romantic soul who happened to be born into a life of privilege? We’ll never know.

Even dependable performers — Jane Pesci-Townsend as Pippin’s “go for the gusto” grandmother, J.J. Kaczynski as a towheaded moppet and Sherri L. Edelen as the smart widow who teaches Pippin the true meaning of contentment — seem strained, and their big numbers ring shrilly.

Gary E. Vincent as Pippin’s warmongering half-brother Lewis wins awards as the hardest working brother in show biz as he nearly turns himself inside out to portray the vain, chowderheaded heir to the throne, but did he have to resort to embarrassing homophobic cliches at which Martin Lawrence might look askance?

“Pippin” might be one of those musicals that just doesn’t age well. Its impudent hurly-burly may belong to that turbulent, freewheeling era of the early ‘70s. Yet, hauling the musical into our multistreaming, tenuous present by bringing on the noise, the funk and piled-on gimmicks is not the answer.

..

WHAT: “Pippin” by Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson

WHERE: Round House Theatre Bethesda, East-West Highway and Wisconsin Avenue, Bethesda

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through June 29.

TICKETS: $29-$37

PHONE: 240/644-1100

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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