Review: ‘Pippin’ by Monumental Theatre Company

Yes, there is magic done at Monumental Theatre’s nifty production of Pippin. I am not overstating my utter enjoyment of this production. It is spunky, buoyant, and engaging from the moment the first notes of “Magic to Do” are played.

Tiziano D’Affuso and Kaitlin Kemp in Pippin. Photo by RJ Pavel.

Pippin is a multi-Tony Award-winning musical with a fine pop score with nearly twenty musical numbers. First staged in 1972, it has music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (1970’s Godspell and 2003’s Wicked) with a book by Roger O. Hirson. Bob Fosse directed the original Broadway production.

Not familiar with Pippin? Well, a touring performance troupe, led by a Leading Player, tells the story of Pippin the person, a young prince on his search for meaning and significance. His father is King Charles from a by-gone time.

What does Pippin want? Well, only the secret to true happiness, real fulfillment, and some meaning in his young life. After all, he has been reared to believe he is extraordinary. So, off the dear prince goes to seek meaning in the glories of the battlefield, the temptations of the flesh, and finally the maneuverings and plotting of a high political life. Nope, no meaning found for this early take on life as a Rolling Stone.

I use the Rolling Stone reference with purpose for a show first staged in 1972 (with earlier roots) when the Vietnam War raged, young people were speaking their minds against Presidents Johnson and Nixon, and were protesting for equal rights. The musical Pippin is a product of those times in its youthful outlook and search for meaning. Monumental’s take on Pippin is a product of current times.

Well, the current Monumental Theatre production is one with an extraordinary intimate black-box staging by a very talented, hustling gaggle of Millennial performers who likely will become names themselves on area stages in the not too distant future. It is clear from this production why Monumental received this year’s 2018 Helen Hayes Award as the Emerging Theater in our midst. The Monumental cast takes to heart a lyric sung in Pippin: “I’ve got to be where my spirit can run free. Got to find my corner of the sky.”

Director Rebecca Wahls has done some fine casting of the DMV’s twelve member, under 30- years-of-age artists. They are diverse, high-spirited, animated, and talented. As the production progresses through its run, I imagine that some of the opening night jitters or occasional notes missed by the orchestra will be smoothed away.

The music direction is by Leigh Delano with a six-member orchestra including Tony Moran (woodwinds), Jonas Creason (bass), Rick Peralta (guitar), Matt Robotham (percussion), Mike Huffman (trumpet) and Delano (keyboard). The Bob Fosse-inspired choreography (with hints of Jerome Robbins and his Jets from West Side Story) designed by Ahmad Maaty is joyful, especially given how close the audience is to the performers. There is no place to hide. Even a minor flaw is not hard to miss when compared to a huge splashy production on a big stage.

The cast includes Tiziano D’Affuso as Pippin. D’Affuso moves fluidly as a dancer, but it is his voice and acting that brings an almost hippy-like innocent to learn that growing up is hard to do. As the Leading Player of the iterant theater troupe, Solomon Parker is one solid, charming, self-assured presence throughout the show. His moments as a rather nasty, manipulative, misogynist director of events are not downplayed. Parker’s long physique and flexible body make his dancing stand out.

Chani Wereley is Catherine, a widow seeking a better life who falls for Pippin then puts up with his quirky nature. Wereley brings a quiet demeanor to her role, a woman ultimately not to be discarded by a once stupid boy. Her sweet soprano voice brought a hush to the audience with “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man.”

Allie O’Donnell and Tiziano D’Affuso in Pippin. Photo by RJ Pavel.

DeCarlo Raspberry as Pippin’s dad, King Charles, is a strong presence with a resonant baritone voice. He sings “War Is a Science” with gusto. His wife, Fastrada, is played as a shameless, conniving hussy by Rachel Barlaam who clearly enjoys the role as she sometimes taunts and teases the audience.

Then there is Grandmother Berthe portrayed by Kaitlin Kemp. Kemp is a delight with her insouciant, saucy attitude encouraging Pippin to find himself and live before it is too late with this lyric from “No Time At All,” “Oh, it’s time to start livin’.” Sure, Kemp is rather young to play a grandmother, but I dare you to care.

The set design (James Raymond) is simple in the black-box theater with some accouterments to add visual interest. There is nothing splashy. The lighting design by Jason Aufdem-Brinks is especially appealing as the final scenes in Act II unfold.

As for this production’s regular use of technology, such as cell phones, it is neither gimmick nor outlandish. In these days of celebrities streaming 24/7 pictures of themselves on Twitter or Instagram to try to become the youngest Billionaire ever, it seems like a good new wrinkle to me. So a tip of the hat to Monumental for that out-of-the-box idea, even if sometimes, just as in real life, cell phones can become annoying.

Coming of age musicals such as Pippin can be easily dismissed or drop from sight on professional stages as their underpinnings become dated. Know that the Monumental Theatre production uses the 2013 revival as its starting point, which includes a final scene with a young child looking forward to the future (not unlike the final scene in the adored Camelot). It is an ending that suggests even as older generations fade, new generations will pop up to carry a message of hope.

Monumental Theatre builds a solid Pippin to enjoy. In the program, the theater company states, “we are dedicated to producing theater that is relevant, socially significant, and appealing across generations.” Yup, I applaud that sentiment and saw it produced on stage. Your turn. Go. Let Pippin “Spread a Little Sunshine” with its “Simple Joys” over you.

Running Time: About two hours, with one intermission.

Pippin plays through July 30, 2018, at The Ainslie Arts Center on the campus of Episcopal High School – 3900 West Braddock Road, in Alexandria, VA. For tickets, purchase them online.

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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Metro Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.