Every dreamer has to find their own little corner of the sky and that is exactly what you might find in the dreamy hopeful production of Pippin at the Greenbelt Arts Center. Directed by Franklin Akers, with a lovely score by Stephen Schwartz, and musical direction provided by Juliana Marin – this high spirited production reminds audiences that even the most ordinary life can be extraordinary and that you don’t need all the razzle dazzle of life’s ‘magic’ to make it so. As the Son of Charlemagne and certain that his destiny is to do something extraordinary with his life, Pippin (Ben Harris) sets forth on a journey to find his place in life after. He tries education, then war, assassination, and even life on the run and the road, but will he find the life he seeks? Will there be satisfaction? That is the story that unfolds on this magic stage.
The magic of this well-known musical comes flooding onto the stage largely in part through the amazing Costume Designs provided by Alison Rollins. We see a circus of gowns, lacy bodices, corsets, and tunics outfitting the players, creating the wonderment of the show through visual delights. There are bright blue and purple gauzy costumes for the harem women in the number “With You.” But the real eye-popper in Rollins’s work is the costume designed for the Lead Player (Hana Cai.) A shimmery silver half-jacket with full tails and a rainbow studded skirt with multi-colored frills extending from her sleeves; this outfit completes the part of the show master creating the spectacle that you would expect from someone who promises a grandiose show as the Lead Player does at the beginning of the show.
The show is defined by its heavy choreography appearing in many of the large ensemble numbers. Choreographer Renee sets up brilliant complex dance routines that often mimic a jazz cabaret style. The most poignant example of her choreographic style are displayed in the number “Glory” where the Lead Player (Hana Cai) leads the troupe in pyramid shaped chorus line each dancer mimicking her moves culminating in the ultimate position where the entire troupe slinks forward, hunched over snapping their fingers to the jazzy beat. Renee’s group choreography is as catching and entertaining as her solo choreographed moves. King Charles (Brian Binney) performs a classy tap dance at the end of “War is a Science” which really shows off some fancy footwork. Renee’s work is more than appreciated by the audience as each dance number leads to strong applause and thorough enjoyment.
The difficult concept of a play within a play is not lost here as director Franklin Akers guides his players to really live up the roles floating in and out of being actors and being characters. We see this best played out with the King Charles (Brain Binney) who plays to the audience in moments when he’s simply the actor, with intentional smiles and cheery gestures but fits the role of the king with his astute mannerisms worthy of royalty. This tactic is often seen frequently with the Lead Player (Hana Cai) as she interrupts several scenes with her ruling authority and knowledge of the way the play is meant to unfold.
The one problem this show has is the mismatched performance of the Lead Player (Hana Cai.) While Cai does have a very powerful lower register, proven during various songs where she is belting loud and clear, when she attempts to sing higher notes her voice completely washes out and you can’t hear her. She exudes an almost sexual prowess when enticing the audience to believe in the mirage and miracle of the play that’s about to unfold but when she takes the more obnoxious approach to her character, like when she interrupts Catherine (Jen Retterer) her character is so obnoxious and over the top with her commanding voice and unstable demands that you stop enjoying these little interruptions. There is something to be said for subtly when trying to be obnoxious but Cai does not master this approach. She creates a conflicting character, one that you really enjoy and one that you are so annoyed with that you simply wish she’d shut her mouth and go away. The same happens when she sings; you desperately want to hear more of her when she’s belting the lower notes in “Simple Joys” and “Glory” but then she washes away and you strain to hear her at all when her voice goes higher. She’s just a little too all over the place and while the split of the character is called for, the performance suffers from her inability to reign it back in various places.
Pippin (Ben Harris) has a stunning vocal quality and he sings with strong emotions during his solo “Corner of the Sky.” Harris’s voice is full of hope and optimism during this number as he struggles to find his purpose and place in life. His emotional turmoil throughout the show is well displayed as the character grows. And his duet with Charles (Ben Binney) is riot for all to see. “War is a Science” has Harris and Binney dueling for the spotlight as Binney takes the verses only to be interrupted by an eager Harris who steals the chorus and the attention of the troupe as well as the audience. This back and forth banter carries over from the song into their interactions; both actors adding to the true chemistry of a confused son and over-expectant father. Harris’s interactions with all of the other players feel genuine as he interacts with old relatives and new encounters along his journey.
One such interaction results in a great song and dance from his grandmother Berthe (Erica Drezek) who bursts into the number “No Time At All.” This song becomes twice as much fun because she branches out into the audience and encourages a sing-a-long but not before demanding that the audience only take the chorus as the verses belong to her. A quirky outstanding performance delivered in this cameo of a role. The other surprise talent from Catherine (Jen Retterer) whose sweet and mellow voice enchants the audience during her solo “There He Was.” She is expressive and soulful during “Kind of Woman” and when she shares brief scenes with Harris you can feel the undercurrent of budding romance swimming to the surface in her character.
So celebrate the simple joys and come find your own little corner of the sky with Greenbelt Art Center’s production of Pippin.
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.