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Review: ‘Pippin’ at Princeton Summer Theater

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So many men seem destined
To settle for something small,
But I won’t rest until I know I’ll have it all…

Stephen Schwartz’s lyrics for “Corner of the Sky” sum up everything that the title character of Pippin longs for. They’re a big reason why the show resonated with audiences in 1972 – and the terrific Broadway revival a few years ago showed that this show set in the 9th Century still speaks to audiences in the 21st Century. Princeton Summer Theater is kicking off its new season with a production of Pippin that isn’t on the scale of those other productions, but which, in its own way, lives up to the title of one of its songs: “Simple Joys.”

Alexandra Holden (center) and Ensemble. Photo by Jake Schade.

Alexandra Holden (center) and Ensemble. Photo by Jake Schade.

Schwartz showed off his precocious gift for soaring melody in Pippin, and if his lyrics don’t always soar to the same heights, they manage to sum up the hopeful, sunny attitude of the title character – a prince of the Holy Roman Empire who doesn’t find his royal lifestyle fulfilling. “His life seemed purposeless and flat / Aren’t you glad you don’t feel like that?” sings the Leading Player – the show’s vaudevillian-style emcee – in one of Schwartz’s many arch observations. Roger O. Hirson’s book guides the ever-searching Pippin through many possible lifestyles (soldier, lover, politician), none of which give him what he’s looking for – yet all of which teach him a lot about life. (This production uses the somewhat meandering and dated book from the original production, not the more streamlined version from the 2013 Broadway revival.)

Kyle Mangold makes for an engaging, earnest Pippin, with a sturdy tenor that reaches to falsetto heights in “Corner of the Sky.” He’s matched well with Bridget McNiff, who’s charming in the underwritten role of Pippin’s lover Catherine. There’s superb singing from Renee Gagner, who shines in the role of Pippin’s slinky, conniving stepmother, and a sweet comic turn by Abby Melick as Pippin’s wisecracking grandmother. And there’s excellent harmony singing by the ensemble on numbers like “Morning Glow” and “Glory.” (Marc Fishman is the Musical Director, leading a tight four-piece ensemble at the rear of the stage.)

Renee Gagner and Kyle Mangold. Photo by Jake Schade.

Renee Gagner and Kyle Mangold. Photo by Jake Schade.

But too much of director Sam Weisberg’s production had failed to coalesce by opening night. Scenes rushed by too quickly to make an impact, and Cori Cook Burkett’s flashy choreography came across as too elaborate for the subdued surroundings of Joseph Haggerty’s set. Alexandra Holden is too strident and unsteady as the Leading Player; she rushes through the lyrics to “Simple Joys” and “On the Right Track,” making them hard to understand. And Elliot Masters talks, rather than sings, his way through two songs as Pippin’s father; that’s a crucial misstep for such a pivotal role.

Julia Peiperi’s costumes give the show a properly funky vibe, and Alex Mannix’s lighting gives it a splash of show biz razzmatazz.

Princeton Summer Theater’s Pippin could use more polish, but it can’t dampen the sweetness and optimism that continues to emanate from Schwartz’s uplifting score. For the many who continue to be moved by its hero’s journey, this Pippin will provide plenty of reasons to cheer.

Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with an intermission.

Bridget McNiff and Kyle Mangold. Photo by Jake Schade.

Bridget McNiff and Kyle Mangold. Photo by Jake Schade.

Pippin plays through July 9, 2017 ,at Princeton Summer Theater, performing at Hamilton Murray Theater on the campus of Princeton University in Princeton, NJ. For tickets, call (732) 997-0205, or purchase them online.

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