“The pace of the production is unrelenting, and the hit list of songs comes thick and fast”
There is ‘Magic to Do’ in the round, underneath the arches at Charing Cross Theatre with this new production of Stephen Schwartz’s classic musical Pippin. Director Steven Dexter takes on his fourth production of the show, developing his version from last autumn at the Garden Theatre.
Performed by a versatile ensemble of eight, Pippin (Ryan Anderson) – with shades of Peer Gynt – goes off on a life journey in search of success and fulfilment, aided and abetted by a troupe of travelling hippie players who may, or may not, have Pippin’s best interests at heart. Always by Pippin’s side is the scheming, snake-hipped Leading Player (Ian Carlyle) who, when not centre stage, can be found observing close by, conducting the band, directing the lighting changes and marshalling his players. He leads Pippin a merry dance intending it to culminate in a sensational Grand Finale – both the show’s and Pippin’s – if fate or love does not intervene.
The set is colourful and vibrant with copious suns and flowers, the circular stage area reminiscent of a big top circus ring. This is 1967, the year of the Summer of Love, and flower-power is in its ascendancy. As we take our seats, the fragrance of incense in the air, Pippin – peace and love symbols embroidered onto his jeans – sits alone, brooding. We hear a soundtrack of sixties songs – The Beach Boys, Cream – interspersed with news bulletins of progress of the Vietnam War. But as the action begins, the period feel becomes less important. This story is timeless.
The pace of the production is unrelenting, and the hit list of songs comes thick and fast – ‘Corner of the Sky’, ‘Glory’, ‘Morning Glow’ ‘Kind of Woman’. The two-piece band is supported by the ensemble with a rhythmic drive of finger clicks, foot stamps and the beating of their own cajons. Together in song and dance they re-enact Pippin’s life, each member taking the role of a significant other in the story: his father, mother, grandmother, lover. And as each player takes centre stage, they are treated to a drum roll from their fellows. Special mention is due here for Genevieve Nicole as Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother, who so nearly steals the show whilst leading the audience in a sing along of ‘No Time at All’. But everyone excels: the words are clear, the singing powerful, the variety of dance styles exhilarating.
But it is Pippin and the Leading Player who are the equal stars of this show. Anderson is sympathetic in his portrayal of Pippin as his character swings from vulnerability to exuberance and then through apathy to tenderness when he allows himself to find love with his Catherine. And his energy is balanced by Carlyle’s control in showing the Player’s cynicism, persuasion, and drive to produce the spectacular. Together the couple command the stage, and no more than during their duet ‘On the Right Track’.
The production is family-friendly with no severed limbs or decapitated heads. And the sexual hijinks are more sensual and implied than explicit, with no more than a hint of bump-and-grind.
The work of Stephen Schwartz will be well represented this year on the London stage with Wicked, The Prince of Egypt, The Children of Eden and Godspell all upcoming but the run begins here with this fine and most enjoyable revival of his first big success.
“Mehmet Ergen directs the show with a freshness and inventiveness that allows the versatile and talented cast to sparkle”
What a treat this is. Turning a successful film into a stage musical isn’t an easy task, but this production by Selladoor manages it wonderfully. The story is true to the original and if you are wondering how the small Arcola stage can accommodate a VW van, a motel, a hospital and a Beauty Pageant, go and see it purely for the ingenuity of David Woodhead’s design.
This is one of those evenings at the theatre that has the audience buzzing and leaving the theatre with huge smiles. Some will also have a tune in their head, as there are some truly memorable songs (William Finn) in the show. The cast are excellent; this is a real ensemble piece where everyone gets a chance to shine, even those with smaller roles, such as Imelda Warren-Green who personified the old adage that there is no such thing as a small part with hilarious performances as Linda and Miss California.
For those not familiar with the film (written by Michael Arndt), the story is about the Hoover family; a rather dysfunctional tribe, who drive from New Mexico to California so that their daughter Olive can enter a children’s beauty pageant. Olive, played this evening by Sophie Hartley Booth was the heart and soul of the show. She was hilarious, sweet and utterly captivating. Her performance in the talent competition brought the house down. Three other children, Ellicia Simondwood, Yvie Bent and Elodie Salmon played the Mean Girls, both the voices in Olive’s head that tell her she isn’t good enough and the other competitors in the beauty pageant. And delightfully mean they were.
The rest of the family each have their problems. Paul Keating played Frank, the gay uncle who has unsuccessfully tried to kill himself, with a gentle sureness of hand. Gary Wilmot’s scandalous grandpa is living on the sofa. He loves to shock, yet has real warmth and Wilmot brought a gorgeous tongue in cheek style to the role. Sev Keoshgerian managed to be very funny, characterful and convincing as Dwayne, Olive’s brother, even during the majority of the show when he doesn’t say a word. The parents, Richard and Sheryl, played by Gabriel Vick and Laura Pitt-Pulford are broke and struggling. Gabriel is optimistic about his ‘ten point plan for success,’ and expecting a book deal that never comes, but despite all the setbacks and obstacles, the family are determined to get Olive to the pageant. Pitt-Pulford sang ‘Something Better Better Happen’ with such genuine emotion that it brought a tear to the eye, and Vick’s ‘What You Left Behind’ was powerful and touching. They felt like a real family, each individually falling apart but coming together in the face of their difficulties; pushing the van to get it started, determined to finish the journey.
The two other cast members are Ian Carlyle and Matthew McDonald, who both take on a couple of contrasting roles. Carlyle is outrageously loud as the wonderfully dreadful pageant host, and equally good as the man who stole Frank’s lover. McDonald also convinces, both as the ex-lover and as the long suffering technical guy at the pageant.
Mehmet Ergen directs the show with a freshness and inventiveness that allows the versatile and talented cast to sparkle. There is a stunning live band above the stage (Musical Director Arlene McNaught) that perform their hearts out for every number. The perfect package is completed with great sound (Olly Steel) and lighting (Richard Williamson) throughout and some excellent choreography (Anthony Whiteman).
If Little Miss Sunshine gets a West End transfer, and it deserves to get one, I will be happy to say that I saw it in this smaller, more intimate space. Do go, if you can. The whole thing is a joy.