Energetic 'Pippin': Broadway meets Bollywood

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By Doug Deuchler

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I've seen Pippin a few times. I even remember Circle Theatre doing it back in the 1980s when they were performing out of the basement of a Forest Park church that later burned down.

I usually retain vivid memories of musicals but this one never seems to stick with me. As I watched the colorful new Circle Theatre production with its "Bollywood" spin, I realized why this show always seems blurry to me. I can never connect with the moody, self-absorbed hero trying to find himself or the thin, disjointed coming-of-age storyline.

But this Circle version of the 1972 musical fable is not without its charms. Director and choreographer Kevin Bellie, in his final production at Circle, has created an energetic, visually stimulating new slant on this four-decade-old script. Pippin: A Bollywood Spectacular showcases a lively, hard-working cast of 16.

The show broke new ground in the early '70s, but it has not aged well. The touchy-feely hippie musical that thumbed its nose at war and parents and authority was daring during the Vietnam War era. The light rock score is by Stephen Schwartz, who wrote Godspell and, more recently, Wicked.

Pippin became a long-running Broadway production, many say, because of the sensational choreography of Bob Fosse.

This new Circle version celebrates the look and sound of Bollywood, the Hindi film industry that produces highly stylized musical melodramas. Circle's artistic choice definitely adds flash and dazzle.

I understand some community members are concerned that perhaps the production may be culturally insensitive or even disrespectful. I didn't see that at all. Yes, perhaps it's initially jarring to see blonde girls wearing red bindi dots on their foreheads. The entire cast is garbed in dazzling, bejeweled finery designed by costumer Jesus Perez. But I don't think this is politically incorrect. Nobody wears "beige face" makeup, and no one uses a comic "Indian" accent like that of Apu, the immigrant proprietor of the Kwik-E-Mart on The Simpsons. I saw no patronizing or mockery of South Asian culture or religion.

Some might say the Bollywood veneer doesn't really add anything to the show. But it does distract us and camouflages the lack of a coherent message and solid storyline. The Indian infusion is a bold attempt to restore the once daring show's previous pizzazz.

Of course, Pippin was always intentionally anachronistic, so nothing is really lost by switching it from a medieval period piece to the Bollywood format. The plot is still loosely based on Charlemagne's son, Pippin, who sought to overthrow his father as king in the 8th Century A.D., so it does seem odd to hear folks in turbans, sherwani, and saris tossing out allusions to the Holy Roman Empire, Padua, the Visigoths, and such. The aloof patriarch Charlemagne who thirsts for blood and war is played by Noah Sullivan.

Neil Stratman, who was so terrific in Circle's Reefer Madness last summer, is earnest and likeable in the title role of the moody adolescent who's looking for his "corner of the sky." Despite the Hallmark hokiness of the script, Stratman makes us care about him. In lesser hands, this idealistic boy-next-door prince trying to find himself might come off whiny and clueless.

Christopher Logan as the omniscient Leading Player, a kind of sinister master of ceremonies, has a piercing, almost demonic look in his eyes. But he often seems lost in the big blur of color and movement. More menacing than engaging, like an evil geni from The Arabian Nights, Logan seldom conveys the required charisma.

The Leading Player originally was ringmaster of an acting troupe of comedia dell'arte-style performers, but that concept seems to have been sacrificed for the busy Bollywood gimmick.

Patti Roeder is fun as Pippin's bawdy grandmother, who advises the young prince to grab a bit of life before it's all gone. He takes that to mean the love of a woman, or maybe many women, or even a few good men. Roeder engages the audience in a sing-along of "No Time At All" with the lyrics projected behind her on a giant screen. "It's time to start livin'!" she sings.

Estrada, King Charlemagne's new wife and Pippin's nasty stepmom, is played by Jennifer Bludgen.

Prince Pippin initially wants to become a warrior and fight courageously alongside his father like his creepy, dim-witted stepbrother Lewis (Shawn Quinlan).

Catherine, the lovely widow who tempts Pippin with the pleasures of domestic bliss and brings the dreamer down to earth, is portrayed by Khaki Pixley. Sam Gray is charming as her young son.

The plot explores the horrors of war and the pleasures of the flesh. The once daring "orgy scene," performed by the full cast clad in flesh-colored body stockings, quickly grows tedious. Schwartz's lyrics (rambling rivers, flying eagles, etc.) often seem particularly dated and trite.

Ryan Brewster is the musical director. Brewster, Charlotte Rivard-Hoster, Ray McNamara, and Justin Kono are the four behind-the-scenes musicians who put the Hindi spin on the light-rock Schwartz score.

The tall set is by Bob Knuth. Gary C. Echelmeyer's lighting design is particularly effective. Adele Lynn Powers is the stage manager. The assistant director, Rebecca Miles-Steiner, also created many amazing props.

I'm not sure what Pippin: A Bollywood Spectacular is trying to tell us besides merely illustrating a young man's journey to find out what life is all about. The appropriation of South Asian culture, though meant to enhance and electrify this 40-year-old material, may blur the production's potential dramatic impact more than enhance it.

Doug Deuchler, a longtime educator, is an Oak Parker who, when not reviewing community theater for Wednesday Journal, is a stand-up comic, a local tour guide and docent, and author of several books about Oak Park and neighboring communities.

Reader Comments

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Fawzia from Chicago  

Posted: November 21st, 2012 9:00 PM

Doug: Respectfully, I'd like to point out that while the cultural or religious insensitivity/disrespect YOU "didn't see at all" -it might behoove you to talk to Indian people who find some of the choices & symbols used quite offensive.

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