*Pippin* at Coeur d'Alene Summer Theater (through July 30)
So many musicals offer entertainment and escape, unadulterated by any pesky thoughts about psychology or, God forbid, political satire. *Pippin* isn’t that kind of musical.
Oh, you’ll leave humming some tunes — but you’ll also be asking yourself questions, wondering about the nature of happiness, confronting your own life.
With a slew of highlights — Stephen Schwartz’s music and lyrics, Roger Welch’s polished and inventive direction, Steve Booth’s exuberant questing in the title role, Michael Wasileski’s Fosse-style choreography, and any number of wonderful supporting bits — Coeur d’Alene Summer Theater is now offering a show that ventures past mere escapism into songs and debates that will actually matter to you for days and weeks later. It closes July 30, so make your plans for *Pippin* now — because this is one of Coeur d’Alene’s finest shows in years.
*Pippin* asks the Big Enchilada questions: What is a well-spent life? What is happiness? Pippin himself — naïve, full of wonder and longing — wants his life “to be more than just long.” Set on a quest, he predictably rejects various career paths: soldier, politician, artist, playboy. But when it comes to the wife and the house with the white picket fence, answers start to tumble in unexpectedly. In *Pippin,* people don’t settle down and live happily ever after. They settle down, but without settling.
But themes are only as engaging as the performances make them, and Welch has coached a lot of exceptional ones out of his cast. In the title role, Steve Booth has the boyish exuberance and arm-flailing energy you’d expect of a naïf chasing after his dreams. He sells “Corner of the Sky” as a rock anthem, belting the high notes in a way that compels listeners to share his character’s hunger for a better life. (In reprising snippets of the song, Booth finds its poignancy.) Booth — an Idaho native fresh from the Las Vegas production of the Tony-winning *Avenue Q* — isn’t afraid to show us that the young prince, while likeable, is also silly, violent, wrong-headed and incompetent. Booth’s is a very likeable, winning performance, and it’s the heart and soul of this show.
Booth gets great support. There’s Jack Bannon as his father the king, rattling off battle orders, fending off loved ones with a cell phone, willing to throw a few profanities around and even make fun of himself. Two particular delights arrive in throwaway scenes that hang like threads from the plot: Ellen Travolta as Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother, and Charissa Bertels as Fastrada, his scheming stepmother. When Pippin comes calling on Grandma for advice (it’s his usual conversational ploy), she responds with the show-stopping “No Time at All.” It’s a catchy little carpe diem ditty, and it works even in a slightly hokey audience sing-along format because Travolta projects her own joie de vivre right out past the footlights. If a woman of a certain age starts cajoling her listeners to stop wasting time, even twenty-somethings perk up and notice. As for Bertels, ambitious for her character’s son, she controls the king with sexuality and Pippin with her wiles. It’s like watching a dance hall version of Lady Macbeth: funny and enjoyable, but a little dangerous too. In what amount to single-scene parts, Travolta and Bertels stand out.
For the rest of this review, check out the July 27 *Inlander.* It'll add comments on the three actors who split up the Leading Player role; the chilling anti-war satire that Welch and costumer Hilary Winkworth achive in "Glory"; the parallels between *Pippin* and other 1970s musicals and movies; Hirson and Schwartz's use of ironic undercutting of idealism throughout; this show's haunting, energizing finale; Wasileski's choreography; those dark, sexy, sarcastic Players; a response to dismissals of *Pippin* as "dated"; and maybe even a bit about Schwartz's latter-day triumph in the moral relativism of *Wicked.* (Nah, that sounds way too academic. But go see this show, folks. It's thought-provoking, extremely well directed, powerfully performed and just plain wonderful.)