Plays offer a look into a different era, with modern productions taking on material written centuries ago. But Pippin affords a chance to see a dual track on that: The era in which it was first staged is the early 1970s. To see it now is a glimpse into that era, but also into a different era of theater, one that was considered a bit revolutionary.
Pippin itself is set during the 8th century, in the court of Charlemagne, King of the Franks. Except, well, it isn't really. It's basically set in 1972, the year it first appeared to great acclaim on Broadway. The brainchild of famed lyricist Stephen Schwartz, with a big assist from director-choreographer Bob Fosse, it arrives in its present incarnation as a very eye-popping production at the North Coast Repertory Theatre.
Pippin rarely lags in sheer kinetic energy; it includes an ensemble of a dozen dancers that sometimes seems like nearly twice that. And although ostensibly a story built around young prince Pippin (Dante Gelormino) and his father Charlemagne (Rigel Schmitt), it's best to dispense with the idea that this is any sort of tale based in historical fact or context. Pippin could be staged in any sort of period or contemporary dress, or a combination thereof, which makes it nearly a blank slate. Costume designer Rae Robinson does fine work in that area, coming up with a great hybrid that runs the gamut from somewhere in the early Middle Ages to sometime close to now.
It's best not to view the story as that of a king and his more sensitive, intellectually curious son — as opposed to his warlike, reckless brother Lewis (Joseph Lawrence) — but as a story taking place within the theatrical production that we're watching. Yeah, it's a little meta and fourth-wall breaking but that's how it was intended and it's all quite rollicking. The top hatted emcee of sorts, known simply as The Leading Player (a simply great Jenna Donahue), is who we first meet and she presides over many of the songs and dramatic turns, often popping out, God-like, to ask characters to change their minds, or even to adopt a more nagging tone of voice.
The opening number, "Magic to Do," is a rousing one led by Donahue and the dizzying ensemble. Things take off into the story of Pippin and his wish to make his father happier with him by going off to war to fight alongside him and Lewis. Pippin's first act contains the better musical numbers and more dazzling set pieces, from "Corner of the Sky" to "Spread a Little Sunshine." It also includes most of the stage time from the dandy Caroline McFarland as Pippin's stepmother Fastrada. McFarland, seen most recently in a great dual role in NCRT's The Liar and also in Arcadia, keeps up the great work here and does so alongside a 9-foot albino Burmese python.
So much of the music and structure of Pippin put me in the mind of another musical from that same era of nearly 50 years ago, Godspell, which shouldn't be surprising, given that it was also a work of Stephen Schwartz's that took the theater world by storm for much of that decade. That means the good (the festive, almost carnival-like atmosphere of dancing), along with some dated songs ("War is a Science," done admirably enough by Schmitt). The story moves in fits and lags, with a few forgettable songs, and the second act tries hard to make a point in a different direction that isn't quite as compelling as the first. But to her credit, director Andrea Zvaleko (Spring Awakening) is able to harness the energy of what does work, including Gelormino's impressive lead performance. And truly not enough can be said about the choreography of Tiggerbouncer Custodio and the dazzling work he gets out of the ensemble and main cast — everything from high-wire work on swings and other hanging props to one damn sexy extended number late in the first act.
As for the glimpse into another era, Pippin offers a look into that early '70s era when plays like Schwartz's were something both tuneful enough to get big grosses but subversive enough — what with their gender-bending, pansexual touches and breaking of barriers between performers and audiences — to be considered moving theater forward into territory yet unseen by most mainstream audiences. On the drive home, after the curtain call, there is that unavoidable good thought: If neither Pippin's content nor its style seems that revolutionary any longer, it's because the future arrived and we're in it.
Pippin plays at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through Dec. 9, with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. on Nov. 19. Nov. 26 and Dec. 3. For more information, call 442-NCRT or visit www.ncrt.net.
Redwood Curtain Theatre's excellent production of the Boston-based drama Good People runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through Nov. 18. Call 443-7688 or visit www.redwoodcurtain.com.
Dell'Arte's annual holiday show comes in the form of The Snow Queen, an adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen tale. The tour opens at the Carlo Theatre on Nov. 24 and continues through Dec. 17 at locations throughout the county. Call 668-5663 or visit www.dellarte.com.