Sunday, July 23, 2017

Applause! Applause! Review of Pippin at SoLuna Studio by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Pippin at SoLuna Studio was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Music & Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by Roger O. Hirson
Directed & Choreographed by Karen Braun
Assistant Director/Choreographer: Greg Pepe
Musical Director: Danny Passadino
Assistant Musical Director: Jack Tanzi
Lights, Sounds & Set: Megan Pietroforte
Fight Choreographer: Mark Maurice
Costumes: Leighann Martone & Karen Braun
SoLuna Studio
659 Old Willets Path
Hauppauge, New York 11788
Reviewed 7/21/17

This was my first time reviewing a show at SoLuna Studio, and if this production of Pippin is any indication of the quality of their work, I can assure you I will be back. The staff is friendly, the stage is large, and the concession items are reasonably priced. There is even a raffle with many wrapped basket items that will be drawn for at the end of the current run. Some of their productions have alternate casts performing on different days. I saw Main Stage Cast A. However, I was told Justin Autz, the main actor playing Pippin, also performs the role as part of Main Stage Cast B. Pippin premiered on Broadway at the Imperial Theater on October 23, 1972, and ran for 1,944 performances before closing on June 12, 1977. The original Broadway production won 5 Tony Awards: Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical (Ben Vereen), Best Direction of a Musical (Bob Fosse), Best Choreography (Bob Fosse), Best Scenic Design (Tony Walton) & Best Lighting Design (Jules Fisher). Pippin was revived on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre with previews starting on March 23, 2013, and an opening on April 25, 2013. The Broadway revival closed on January 4, 2015, and won 4 Tony Awards: Best Revival of a Musical, Best Actress in a Musical (Patina Miller), Best Featured Actress in a Musical (Andrea Martin), and Best Direction of a Musical (Diane Paulus).

Even though Pippin is a story about Charlemagne and his first-born son, the theme of a young person seeking meaning and fulfillment in life is universal. As was the case with Pippin, after years of having his ego boosted with no real responsibilities, some children come to believe they are special and destined to do extraordinary things. They seek to find their "corner of the sky." Then, at some point, reality strikes and their dreams are shattered. This musical uses the premise of a mysterious performance troupe, led by a Leading Player, to tell the story of Pippin as he searches for something to do that is significant and worthwhile. He tries war, music, fornication, revolution, politics, the church, and finally settles down to work every day on a farm doing simple things with the love of a good woman, but none of these endeavors fulfill him. The Leading Player eventually offers Pippin the opportunity to go out in a blaze of glory in a manner people will never forget. But he declines and is lost having no good options left. Perhaps his grandmother was correct when she told him "you think too much." 

While Pippin's journey for fame and glory is over, every day many young people seek to climb to the summit of their own personal mountain only to settle or "compromise" when they finally give up their unrealistic dreams. While the musical is upbeat and in this production, immersive with actors dressed in colorful costumes performing stunts and dancing all around the audience members, the overall theme is quite depressing. Morning Glow, the song ending Act I, never hit me as hard as it did in this production. After all, it is sung just after Pippin kills his father in cold blood in a church and before he can ask for his knife back in Act II. I should also add that this musical is far more adult-themed and violent than it is generally promoted as being. Charlemagne kills thousands of his own peasants and while working with the Pope to convert nonbelievers, he offers heathens the choice between "Baptism or Beheading." Charlemagne's own wife sets him up for assassination by Pippin so she can advance her son's chances of becoming King. Finally, Pippin engages in orgies and has premarital sex with Catherine. Even Berthe, Pippin's grandmother, is a bit of a slut. In my opinion, caution should be used before exposing this show to young children. 

There were many extraordinary actors in this production but the standout performer, by far, was Jordan Yates, who played Lewis (Pippin's half brother who is second in line to the throne). Yates' portrayal of Lewis ("who loves weightlifting, wrestling, and above all else, himself") was absolutely hilarious. Jordan Yates is a charismatic and talented actor who never stepped out of character. It was my pleasure to watch him perform on stage and I hope to see more of him in future productions. Fastrada, his mother and current wife of King Charles, was masterfully portrayed by Haley Licata. She has a strong stage presence and a powerful voice. Robert Sock was King Charles The Great. His unique facial expressions and dance movements combined to make the part of Charlemagne his own. I was very sorry to see him killed near the end of Act I but I forgot that in Pippin "there is magic to do, just for you!". Kylie Lavrenchik brought innocence and light to the stage as Catherine, the widow who convinces Pippin to take up responsibilities as head of the household, until he gets bored and leaves. Finally, Samantha Jurman hit a home run playing Berthe, Pippin's exiled grandmother. She was an audience favorite!

Justin Autz, who played Pippin, and Mia Donneruno, who was Leading Player, are both good actors. They looked the part and wore costumes appropriate for their respective roles. However, Justin Autz lacked sex appeal and had trouble staying on key when singing some of the songs, and Mia Donneruno just wasn't strong enough to carry off Leading Player. I kept wondering how different the show would have been had Haley Licata been Leading Player. The supporting cast was very talented and I particularly liked the disembodied head, who was not credited in the program that had no bios for any of the actors. Karen Braun deserves credit both for her direction and for the choreography. Particularly impressive was the Fight Choreography, designed by Mark Maurice. Bravo! The costumes were magnificent. Credit for them goes to Leighann Martone and Karen Braun. Finally, since some of the actors (Pippin & Catherine) demanded appropriate spotlights, Megan Pietroforte gets credit for turning them on when required - on cue.

During this anecdotal revue, there are some funny lines. As Pippin sought fulfillment, he joined the Church hoping to be "touched by an angel" but "it wasn't an Angel who touched him." He tried the Arts, but every time Charlemagne slashed the budget, funding for the Arts was always the first to go. After a successful battle, Pippin participated in the rape and sacking ("an essential part of victory) but he found War Sex to be "empty and vacant" (he thought there would be "more plumes"). The King believed Lewis was "the perfect soldier - fierce and stupid." Pippin appeared shocked when Lewis spoke favorably about raping Visigoth women. Seeing Pippin's reaction, Lewis apologized saying, "I am sorry to have offended your bookish sensibilities." Pippin responded, "No, it's not that. I'm just shocked you like women now." Reflecting a universal conflict, Berthe confesses she has been banished from Court "due to a personality conflict with my daughter-in-law." In the end, The Guardian of Splendor invited Pippin the opportunity "to remain in our minds forever" by jumping from the highest height into the flames below where he would be "like the sun blazing in the sky at its zenith." Pippin declines and the troupe calls him a "compromiser." He considers going back to Catherine because he now understands,"If I'm never tied to anything, I'll never be free." On the other hand, he also recognizes "There is no color I can have on Earth that won't finally fade." No resolution is offered and the audience leaves the theater contemplating their own destiny and their search for meaning and fulfillment. 

For more information about upcoming productions of SoLuna Studio, visit their website at or call them at 631-761-6602.

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