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Friday, April 16, 2021

Dredging Up the ‘70s

From the Theatrical Vault Dept.: Wasn’t I the bitchy little critic here! Not that I’ve changed; I’m simply more inclined to avoid the shows that I know will anoy me. But here’s a glimpse of what was going around 35 years ago.


HAVING A COLLEGE ROOMMATE who was a slob was easy compared to having one who was a poet. I’m talking about the kind of person who would utter bathos and call it profound, who bled for correct causes, whose own shallow depths were seen as somehow mystical.

Ben Vereen
“Pippin” is that kind of show. A product of Broadway’s confused 1970s, it has dated more rapidly than the fast-talkin’ stuff of the ‘30s (I’m thinking specifically of such shows as “On Your Toes,” seen recently in a successful revival.) At least chestnuts made no bones about being fluffy.

But “Pippin” attempts to celebrate basic values of self-confidence and conjugal love by lampooning the very vehicle that propels it: musical-comedy tradition. In doing so, it smirks at itself many, many times too often.

The production that played at Proctor’s last week was directed by and starred Ben Vereen, who made a deserved name for himself in the Broadway original. Too bad he doesn’t have better material to work with. He is presented as the Leading Player of a smart-mouthed troupe that tells the story of Pippin, son of Roman Emperor Charlemagne, a young man who (and isn’t this a metaphor for the ‘70s!) seeks to find some kind of personal fulfillment.

Vereen introduces us to Sam Scalamoni in the title role, a man certainly as energetic a stage presence as Vereen himself. He then takes us through a series of encounters in which the young man tries on war and debauchery and farming (with a widowed mother of a young son) before being led to the ultimate fulfillment of self-immolation, a really too-precious metaphor that Pippin rejects in favor of the farming.

Instead of adhering to musical comedy tradition, the actors speak and respond satirically (“What would the second act of a musical comedy be without a love duet?” asks the Leading Player) – a device that wears out quickly. And the finale, in which Pippin and the widow and the kid are stripped of costume and scenery, is just plain silly.

Stephen Schwartz’s music and lyrics also succumb to the temptation to satirize tradition, as they did in “Godspell”; when they aren’t Muzak-y soft rock, they’re making fun of the set numbers done so nicely by Cole Porter, the Gershwins, et. al.

But the top-notch cast also included Michael Kubala as Pippin’s half-brother Lewis, and Ed Dixon (very memorable) as the King. Rende’ Rea Norman came on late in the show as the widow, Catherine, and Jeb Handwerger was young Theo. Ginger Prince straddled the line of overplaying as Fastrada, Pippin’s bloodthirsy stepmother, but was generally amusing. All sang with good voices, poorly amplified.

Ah, that sound system. Every time Scalamoni hit a high note it fuzzed into a tinny whine; and in general it was a matter of listening to electronics, not voices.

The best production values in the world can’t redeem a second-rate show. Nevertheless, Vereen & Co. made the most of what they were working with. “Pippin” can’t be profound with such a shallow book (the work of Roger O. Hirson); it fails as fluff with so much self-mockery. So it’s simply a transitory spectacle that, in my wife’s words, “makes people feel good about their empty
little lives.”

Metroland Magazine, 18 September 1986

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