PIPPIN (second opinion review)By Stephen Schwartz
The Firehouse Theatre
Directed: Derek Whitener
Choreography: Christina Kudlicki Hoth
Musical Direction: Kelly Schaal
Costume Design: Victor Newman Brockwell
Set Design: Kevin Brown
Aeriel Consultant: Taylor Quintero
Leading Player: Morgen Amalbert
Pippin: William Carleton
Catherine: Cayley Nicole Davis
Berthed: Andi Allen
Lewis: Quintin Jones Jr
Astraea: Kim Borge Swarner
Charlemagne: Dan Servetnick
Theo: Alexander Lilly
Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Theater Critic/Editor/Founder, THE COLUMN. Member, AMERICAN THEATRE CRITICS ASSOCIATION for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
I’ve seen some decent productions of Pippin and some that had me looking for the nearest exit. The best version I’ve seen is the 2013 Broadway revival.
You can clearly see that Firehouse Theatre Director Derek Whitener saw the revival and drew his inspiration from it. He too uses the 2013 revival of presenting the piece within a circus tent. Throughout the musical Whitener combined both his own vision as well as that of Diane Paulus, who directed the 2013 revival.
Firehouse is an intimate space, but Whitener makes it look so much bigger from his staging and blocking. He has 25 actors in the company, and he magically somehow placed them all on the stage, but never once did it look crowded or making the cast resemble a can of stuffed sardines. The pace was brisk. There is a lot that Whitener has thrown onto that multi leveled stage. He has circus props galore, silks for acrobats, a hoop hanging in the air, big balls, stilts, and more! His blocking and staging is a magical feat. To put a big cast on a small stage, and make it look pristine with everyone having room to dance, sing, etc. that is remarkable.
The design of the show also follows the circus theme with Scott Davis’s luxurious lighting, Victor Newman Brockwell’s eclectic, colorful costumes, and Kevin Brown’s charming sets. Kelly Schaaf’s musical direction and her three piece band do a first rate job.
Christina Kudlicki Hoth did the impossible with her choreography. It is vividly clear that she used parts of Bob Fosse’s original choreography as well as her own dance interpretation and concepts. It was fresh, exciting and dazzling to see the cast execute marvelously her choreography.
The work of this Pippin Company was exceptional and peerless. A couple of the principals did have at times vocal issues of cracking on the high notes or straining to sustain the notes to the cut off.
Within the leads there was some very impressive work provided by Morgen Amalbert (Leading Player), Cayley Nicole Davis (Catherine), and Kim Borge Swarner (Fastrada).
Three actors chewed up the scenery down to the last piece of wood. Quintin Jones Jr. with his handsome features, slithered across the stage with his bitchy evilness as Pippin’s brother Lewis. Andi Allen had the best production number of the evening with Bertha’s “No Time At All”. Her dynamic comedic talents knew exactly where to land the jokes within the lyrics. Dan Servetnick gave his best performance as King Charlemagne. His palatial stage presence, strong baritone voice, and snappy comedic timing worked like a well-oiled machine to create his royal characterization.
As Pippin, William Carleton physically looks like the young heir to the throne struggling to find his purpose on earth. Carleton did push hard to hit the high tenor notes in some of his solos, but unfortunately it caused him to crack or sing slightly off key. But when the notes and vocal belt hit within his range it was sublime. His dance talents to execute the choreography was outstanding. I was extremely impressed by his acting craft. He took the role onto some new paths that were riveting and preeminent. The book for the second act has always been a problem for me. It has pot holes within the emotion and flow of the piece. Carleton simply drove around these gaps with emotional finesse. Carleton gave a fascinating performance.
The stars of this production is its tour de force ensemble. Their vocals were robust and energetic with flawless harmonies. Their focus and full energy to their choreography was transcendent. There was quite a lot of choreography and staging within this musical, and Firehouse’s Pippin ensemble executed it with smashing, brilliant results. It was so refreshing to see an ensemble create their own emotions, reactions, etc. No unison singular emotion, but instead their own characterization and emotion. Their artistry and talent help build a rock solid emotional floor for not only themselves, but for the leads as well. That is a very rare quality I don’t see in most choruses in musicals. This Pippin’s ensemble was sensational!
You can tell that in some productions that they had a lazy production team that barely put anything on their stage, or if they did it was bland and lifeless. Or the direction and choreography is sloppy, dull, and basic. They just “get by” with what is around, throwing it up on the stage to see what sticks. It’s those productions that makes me want to stick a pen in my eye just so that I can leave the theater.
Firehouse Theatre’s Pippin is nothing like that. For their interpretation they took each element of the piece apart, dissected it, and studied it page by page, note for note.
With Whitener’s direction, his production team, his cast and crew, they all have built a musical that was lavish and prodigious. Snatch some tickets fast because this Pippin Company has some magic to do- and let me tell you, that is some magic on that stage!
The Firehouse Theatre
2535 Valley View Lane, Farmers Branch, TX 75234
July 19 – August 20, 2017
For ticket prices, dates, location, parking, etc.:
972.620.3747 / www.thefirehousetheatre.com