Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Charlemagne's Kid Gets Along -- Theatre Review: Pippin

Theatre Review

BoHo Theatre at Theatre Wit
Thru November 13, 2011

In the quantitatively shallow but qualitatively deep category of "Superb and successful Broadway composer-lyricists named Stephen who have 8-letter surnames starting with S," Stephen Schwartz comes in a somewhat distant second.

But though his overall canon is a good bit shy of Mr. Sondheim's, with Wicked, Schwartz can probably claim the single most successful show (especially if West Side Story and Gypsy, for which Sondheim wrote just the lyrics, aren't considered).

But while I fairly well know the majority of Sondheim shows and tend to see a few each year--including West Side, Sweeney Todd, Follies and Merrily We Roll Along so far in 2011--besides Wicked, my direct familiarity with Schwartz' output had been rather limited before this year.

I saw Children of Eden several years back, but couldn't name--let alone hum--a single song from it. And thus, though I love Wicked and have seen it several times, I really couldn't sing Schwartz' praises beyond it.

In 2011, that has changed considerably. Somewhat.

In February, I saw the new production of Working, a 1977 show for which Schwartz wrote some of the songs. He himself was strongly involved in the show's resurrection and staging at Chicago's Broadway Playhouse and I really liked the show, but I can't recall which songs were his (vs. those by about a half-dozen other composers/lyricists).

In July, for the first time I saw Schwartz' first hit--Godspell--in a summer college production at Northwestern. Perhaps it's because I'm Jewish--as I imagine is Schwartz--and didn't know "the source material," but despite some tuneful songs, I didn't like it much. To the point of not bothering to write a review ripping college kids. (The show was just revived on Broadway, so perhaps when a future tour routes through Chicago, I can give it another chance.)

Much better was Snapshots, Northlight's new "musical scrapbook" using Schwartz songs in the service of a new story (with Stephen himself revising some lyrics). Though I didn't recognize many of the songs--besides a few from Wicked--I liked most of them. Snapshots considerably upped my regard for Schwartz' oeuvre, and as a few nice tunes were from Pippin, I was curious to see that show.

Fortuitously, Chicago's Bohemian Theatre Ensemble--now dubbed the BoHo Theatre--is presenting Pippin in a refurbished space at the Theater Wit on Belmont. (If it's any solace to Mr. Schwartz, re: my opening paragraph, I opted to see Pippin on Sunday--with a cheap ticket from HotTix--rather than Putting It Together, a Sondheim review running in the adjoining theater.)

BoHo's rendition of Pippin wasn't quite boffo--the Tribune's Chris Jones was rather lukewarm--but it certainly provided sufficient entertainment for a bargain matinee.

Given the sparse staging and generally solid but not superlative performances, I don't know that I can rightfully judge Schwartz' creation itself. "Magic To Do," "Corner of the Sky" and "Morning Glow" were the only songs I recall as first-rate just a few days later, but the rest reinforced that even in his early-'20s, Schwartz was already a formidable talent (by 26 he had three Broadway hits running simultaneously). And though I think I generally followed the story, I'm not certain I got everything that was going on.

(Given my title for this post, perhaps I should explain that Pippin is the son of Charlemagne (aka King Charles) in what I believe is 8th century France. My oblique reference is to this song, not from the show.)

Shawn Nathan Baer in the title role and Travis Porchia as "Leading Player" (a role originated by Ben Vereen) led a cast that did a nice job executing the choreography of Brenda Didier under the direction of Peter Marston Sullivan.

While I can't say I was blown away, if  you likewise want to expand your knowledge of Schwartz' work, there's no reason not to see this production of Pippin, especially with tickets as low as $11 on HotTix. But if you can get to Snapshots before it closes this Sunday, it should provide a better picture of the merits of the runner-up, but still quite winning, Stephen S.

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