Reviewed – 28th February 2018
“Tessa Kadler … nails the comedy but melts the heart with the purity of her singing voice”
Written in 1972, “Pippin” uses the ‘play within a play’ concept to recount the story of Pippin, a young prince on his search for meaning and significance in his life. The fourth wall is broken from the outset in what is quite a stunning opening as the players, lead by the formidable Genevieve Nicole as ringmaster-cum-emcee, launch into the prologue number, ‘Magic To Do’.
Jonathan Boyle’s upbeat production at Southwark Playhouse lives up to this promise. Most of the time. That is no mean feat, as in less able hands this show could so easily fall apart under the weaknesses of the book. The story is derived from the real life medieval characters; ‘Pepin’ and his father ‘Charlemagne’, although there is no historical accuracy beyond the use of the names. Charting Pippin’s rite of passage the narration purposefully feels improvised, but the technique grates after a while and any intended poignancy is lost in the confusion.
On his quest for fulfilment, Pippin joins the army fighting for his father, but then leads a political rebellion against him and usurps the throne. Still unfulfilled he flees to the country and sets up home with a widow and her son. But he is still unsatisfied. One could share Pippin’s frustration if this haphazardly lazy fable wasn’t rescued by Stephen Schwartz’s score. What Schwartz brings to the stage is fresh and modern but also recognisable in its influences, tipping his hat to Gilbert and Sullivan, Bernstein, Kander and Ebb, Motown, and adding his own pop sensibilities. William Whelton’s masterful choreography is unmistakable in its homage to Bob Fosse who choreographed and directed the original Broadway production.
Jonathan Carlton’s Pippin is part ‘boy band’ and ‘boy-next-door’, a charming mix that fits the role, but the show stealer is Tessa Kadler as the widow, Catherine, who nails the comedy but melts the heart with the purity of her singing voice.
But overall the initial promise of magic isn’t quite sustained. The comedy doesn’t always work: there is a feeling of trying too hard which is disengaging and which conflicts with the absurdity of the piece. The company should embrace the nonsense, or dispense with the plot entirely. The sideshow quality of Maeve Black’s design adds a touch of seediness and sexiness and Aaron J. Dootson’s lighting is spot on ‘Cabaret’. As a revue this would be the perfect show. The all singing, all dancing cast are faultless and with the eight piece band led by musical director, Zach Flis, it is a quite spectacular evening.
Just as Schwartz’s lyrics proclaim, the committed cast do perform magic. It is quite a conjuring trick to bring to life Roger O. Hirson’s flimsy text. The music has soul, but the story lacks heart.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Pamela Raith
Southwark Playhouse until 24th March