'Pippin' still has spark after all these years

It's difficult to know whether my fondness for Pippin endures because it's such an infatuating musical or because I was able to lure my infatuating new girlfriend to come see it on Broadway in the '70s. Something about that date involves staying power, for me and for Pippin. All these years later I'm still her husband and Pippin's still around, now on a national tour.

Bits of the original (the original Pippin, not the original me) shine at the Forrest, where the story of Charlemagne's restless, frustrated eldest son opened Thursday night. That boy is Pippin, who expects more of life than the book-learning his dad imposes on him. "I've got to be where my spirit can run free. . . . Rivers belong where they can ramble," he sings in a show that to me is Stephen Schwartz's highest point - moreso than his earlier, heartfelt Godspell or his later triumph, Wicked.

Pippin is a show without a musical clinker. What a pity that on Thursday at the Forrest, cast members sounded as though they were being broadcast from a small boom box at stage rear in monaural, while the orchestra soared from the pit like its muscular live self. Even at full belt, some voices seemed to reach stage-front, then drop.

Was it me? At intermission I listened in on people buzzing about the sound, then began approaching folks without introduction to ask, "How's the sound where you're sitting?" The responses generally confirmed my hearing.

Even in a din, Schwartz's songs are invitingly singable. You'll smile at the little epiphanies he weaves, and the language he uses to color the fabric. Bob Fosse directed and choreographed the original, and the current dances by Mark Dendy tip hats to Fosse's work. Liz Prince exploits the latitude that the show, played circus-style with a chorus of harlequins, offers for costume changes - bold, bright and also borrowing from the original.

Director Gabriel Barre stages this Pippin more elaborately than I remember it - and more imaginatively. There's a lot going on, and it all makes sense, from the cast's amusing portrayal of animals on the farm where Pippin's life is saved (or possibly squelched into normalcy), to the way supporting players come and go in different personas. But for all Barre's inventiveness, the tour has irritants.

One is Joshua Park's Pippin. Park can be as endearing as Pippin needs be to convince us that he's desperate to do something strikingly worthwhile, but he sings as if Pippin has been reborn as a rock musical. His desperation comes across more like defiance. Yes, that's a part of Pippin, but not the chief part.

Granted, at its best the show plays like a smoothly drawn cartoon, but its ringleader, called Leading Player - part guardian angel, part tantalizing devil, and the part that made Ben Vereen famous - has enough moves without the suggestion that he's a touch queenly. Otherwise, André Ward's performance is a highlight of the evening. And Barbara Marineau's Berthe, Pippin's granny, comes across like a carefree Aunt Bea in a role that wants a saucy Miss Grundy. She has the stuff, but she's young for the part - and the terrible dead sound pummeled her song, a robust number called "No Time at All," into the sort of submission the lyrics rail against.

Teal Wicks is the lovely Catherine, who wants so much to beguile Pippin, and the wily Shannon Lewis, Pippin's stepmom. Medieval warrior king Charlemagne is played and sung nicely by Micky Dolenz (yes, the ex-Monkee).

Pippin has a bizarre finale, beautifully done here, and I'm not about to give it away. I've always been stumped by what the last scene, with its powerful song, tries to tell us. It seems to say that you can't pursue your dreams and at the same time grasp reality. Bummer - and hardly in the spirit of the musical. My wife and I began to talk about the finale's meaning after the show, then realized we'd wondered about it decades ago. That ambiguity may be a flaw in Pippin - but its ability to force us once again into the same line of thought made us chuckle.


Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, book by Roger O. Hirson, directed by Gabriel Barre, choreography by Mark Dendy, scenery by Beowulf Boritt, costumes by Liz Prince, lighting by Kevin Adams.

The cast: Joshua Park (Pippin), André Ward (Leading Player), Micky Dolenz (Charlemagne), James Royce Edwards (Lewis), Shannon Lewis (Fastrada), Barbara Marineau (Berthe), Teal Wicks (Catherine), Jason Blaine (Theo).

Playing at: Forrest Theatre, 1114 Walnut St., through Monday. Tickets: $43.75- $76.25. Information: 1-800-447-7400 or www.forrest-theatre.com/shows.htm.

Contact Inquirer staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com.