Pippin Is a Colossal Misfire at Phoenix Theatre

After what seemed like a very long time, Phoenix Theatre's production of Pippin stopped shrieking and wiggling its collective hips, and shuddered to a close. Meanwhile, we — an audience made up mostly of "people of a certain age" — endured a lifeless rip-off of Cirque du Soleil staged by a lot of people who should, by now, have known better.

And Jenny Hintze.

To his credit, director/choreographer Michael Barnard attempts to capture Fosse's original feel for the show, which was dark and quite surreal, without actually restaging Fosse's version. In doing so, he ticks off every trick in his own playbook (Look! There's a bit of that seated pat-a-cake routine from The Will Rogers Follies! Here's that audience participation bit! There's a guy eating a banana!) as well as several from Pippin's recent Broadway revival.

Pippin's award-winning original production opened on Broadway in 1972 and ran for five years. Its story, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, is told by an unnamed performance troupe that enacts the life of a young prince who's searching for a life of consequence. For all its ironic wit, there's little irony in Pippin, which is angst-ridden and edgy (at least by early-'70s standards). Its pleasure is in its very predictability, and in Schwartz's pleasant score, ploddingly performed here by Alan Ruch's live band.

If this Pippin is a colossal misfire (and it is! It is!), it is so for the same reason that traditionally plague musicals at this 93-year-old professional theater: Over-ambition.

Filling a stage with a Mardi Gras bacchanal of dancers works best when the dancers can actually dance. This writhing chorus (augmented by Scorpius, a local contemporary dance company) gyrates and poses provocatively, squatting and high-kicking, flinging its knees lewdly apart — yet never with quite enough skill or panache.

We're distracted by the many gymnastic circus acts that surround them, but ultimately, Barnard's vision is greater than the talents of the cast he has assembled — with a single exception.

Even a mediocre acting turn would stand out surrounded by this much failure, but Hintze, as the scheming queen Fastrada, offers something more. Her engaging, serpentine presence and fine, clear singing voice belong to another production. She is nearly matched by Paul Oakley Stovall in the title role. Stovall's wide-eyed innocence is perfect for the part of an emotionally ungrounded young man — and he sings nicely, too. But a pair of fine performances does not a production make, and in the end — which in the case of this production came none too soon — this Pippin's reach exceeds its musical grasp.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela