Review: Short North Stage’s Riotous and Charming Pippin
If any audience members still harbor doubt in their hearts that Amber Knicole is a star of supernova proportions, her turn as Leading Player in Short North Stage’s effervescent revival of Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics) and Roger O. Hirson’s (book) Pippin, directed and choreographed by Edward Carignan, will lay those concerns to rest. A hit since the 1970s, Short North Stage presents the Columbus premiere of the smash 2013 revision.
Pippin frames its allegory about the corrosive influence of power and the seductive nature of corruption with running off and joining the circus. A traveling group of players, led by Knicole, charm and bewilder a modern child (Carson Kittaka) as they recount the cracking of the Holy Roman Empire. Their tale traces the fall of Charlemagne (Thom Christopher Warren) and the rise of his son, Pippin (Corbin Payne). Pippin battles with his brother, Lewis (Timothy P. Forszcz), set up as heir-apparent by their mother Fastrada (Mollie Downes) and finds time to fall in love with Catherine (Dionysia Williams).
The cast makes the most out of the gleeful material. Amber Knicole plays the leading player as Mephistopheles and a general you can picture wave after wave of young people enlisting to follow into certain death. She and Warren nod at the sense that this actor and Charlemagne are a before/after cautionary tale in a fascinating way I’ve never seen before. Her sense of physicality is mesmerizing, leading a cast with no slouches in that department as she hangs from the rafters, tumbles, and even performs half a song while hula hooping.
Payne’s Pippin is more a cipher compared to the antic fun bouncing around him with Downes’ Fastrada and Foszcz’s Lewis’ delightfully over the top love and Warren’s over-the-top slapstick dissolution. Payne is a rock throughout, the solid base everything can spark off or leap from, making the most out of his earnest songs like “Morning Glow” and “Corner of the Sky.”
Williams’ Catherine has an appealing chemistry with Payne, making home and family seem appealing even in the face of the ribald excitement of the speeding theatrical life, and shines when she gets to unleash that energy as part of the ensemble. The terrific ensemble boasts especially good work from Kyle Swearingen, Heidi Kok, Amirah Joy Lomax, Lisa Glover, and Jeff Fouch.
With a show made famous for original direction by Bob Fosse, any Pippin needs to bring its heaviest artillery for dancing and Carignan and the company outshine even the high bar they’ve set themselves here. He updates and refines the blend of vaudeville, jazz, and commedia dell’arte into a fizzy, irrepressible concoction; often I had a hard time deciding where to look.
To accompany those flights of physical fancy, the music direction, conducted by Zac DelMonte (also on keys) similar steps up a few notches with a muscular eight-piece band that propels everything without overpowering it. The horn section – Melanie Richards, Collin Poage, and Brogan Reilly – taps into the same sexy swing as the dancers on stage.
For as much as this revision tightens both book and score, Pippin still sprawls; the performance I saw crossed the 2:30 mark with one intermission. And the score is still heavy on ballads very similar to one another. But for the audience willing to take that ride, there are jolts of delight and jaw-dropping wonder around every turn.
Pippin runs through April 20 with performances at 8:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3:00 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, please visit shortnorthstage.org.