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Review: At Selma Arts Center, a buoyant and murky ‘Pippin’ finds a big, wonderful tent all its own

This “Pippin” is pipin’ hot.

My first rule for evaluating any production of “Pippin” is simple: It all depends on the performance of the song “No Time at All,” the bouncy, jingly, ear-wormy ode to eternal optimism sung in the first act by Pippin’s scandalous grandmother, Berthe. Banned from court for feuding with her daughter-in-law, Berthe reminds the timid Pippin to go out in the world and get a little wild – because no one knows how much time he or she (or they) has left. If this big production number doesn’t leave me with a warm, introspective and floaty feeling – one that makes me simultaneously exhilarated at life’s possibilities and also a little crestfallen at how quickly mine has raced by – then the production hasn’t done its job.

Pictured above: Jonathan Padilla, left, as Pippin, and Jenna Valencia, as Berthe, in “Pippin.” Photo: Edgar Olivera / Selma Arts Center

Does Selma Arts Center and director Summer Session deliver the goods with “No Time at All” in this production (which runs through Oct. 22)?

Absolutely.

Jenna Valencia, playing Berthe, gives a big, generous, shiny performance – one that whacks the audience on the head and says, “Have fun while you still can!” The song is the peak of the show’s optimism. In the chorus, as the cast sways and Berthe belts out “Oh, it’s time to start living, time to take a little from the world we’re given,” designer Christina McCollam’s patterned lights bop along to the infectious beat. Yes, even the lights are dancing. How could you not help but be uplifted?

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Yet “Pippin” is more than just oodles of good cheer and life-to-the-fullest enthusiasm. If done right, it’s a strange, even menacing, experience for the audience. Stephen Schwartz’s 1972 musical, an odd and very loose retelling of the story of the son of Charles (aka the Emperor Charlemagne), is presented against the backdrop of a circus (or, in this case, a tented freak show) performed by a mysterious theater company. The musical should get murky, particularly in the second act, when the Leading Player (in this production achieved by an exhilarating Leif Bramer) goes beyond the show-biz smile and starts mucking around in your subconscious.

Which brings me to my second measuring stick for the show: the moment when Catherine (played with a brittle vulnerability by Kindle Cowger) finally crosses the line with the Leading Player. One of “Pippin’s” innovations when it first opened decades ago was the way it not only broke the Fourth Wall with the audience but turned the play-within-a-play storyline inside out, so to speak, in terms of the motivations of the characters. Catherine, a widow, is the last chance for Pippin – who has romped through life like a spoiled prince trying to find ways to make his life meaningful – to find some form of real connection with another human being. Catherine (or at least the mysterious actress playing her) decides, in a sense, to sacrifice herself so that Pippin (an emotionally robust and sweetly engaging Jonathan Padilla) can avoid his certain fate. By rebelling against the preordained structure of the “script,” Catherine – who is more mouse than giant – manages to break the cycle.

Again, I was completely taken with the moment. It’s chilling and vulnerable.

This darker side of “Pippin” particularly soars. Session, who grew up in the Fresno theater scene and earned an MFA at UC Irvine, gives us one of the strongest musicals I’ve seen at Selma, ranking up there with “Spring Awakening,” “Cabaret” and “Heathers,” as she sculpts the material into a taut, fierce package. Session’s take feels bold, fresh and disconcerting. I was moved in ways that went far beyond my reaction when I saw the Broadway revival in 2013.

The creative team comes through as well, from McCollam’s aforementioned lights and Nicolette C. Andersen’s scenic design to Ajay Davis’ sound design and Lauren Heard’s costume and makeup design. (With sparkly hose, skin-tight helmets, fringy dresses and knee pads, the aesthetic is flapper meets medieval.)


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Miz-Unique’s Slater’s choreography is particularly striking – some of the best locally I’ve seen this year. The dancers are excellent. Shelby Guizar and Maddison Eaton, in a featured number with Bramer, are standouts.

There are some wobbles. Padilla has a strong tenor voice but doesn’t have the range to hit some of the highest notes. (Particularly in “Morning Glow.”) The recorded music occasionally overwhelms the performers. Bramer, as the Leading Player, is a standout overall but could do more of a slow burn toward outrage at the end of the show; they become too shrill too soon, with their diction overwhelmed by anger.

Still, the show works. It has an unpolished, low-budget-but-big-dreams sheen that actually feels polished in just the right the way. And Session’s directorial vision makes everything click. Many directorial moments soar, both bleak and bright: the castanets in “Love Song”; the “Lord of the Rings” map brought out to explain the Holy Roman Empire (hey, look, there’s Mordor!); the awkward hug between Pippin and Charlemagne (a jolly/scary Chris Ortiz-Belcher); the jokey menace of the doltish stepbrother, Lewis (a brutish James Anderson); the sassy bootie interlude from queen and wicked stepmother Fastrada (a superb Jacob Moon), complete with ta-dah hand gesture emphasizing a very glittery gold miniskirt.

Edgar Olivera / Selma Arts Center

Leif Bramer brings an angular sense of menace to the role of Leading Player in Selma Arts Center’s ‘Pippin.’

I was often amused (and a little scared) of ensemble member Claudio Laso’s on-stage persona. Even while playing numerous supporting roles, his outfit (a hippie vest over bare chest, a wig with long brackish locks that makes him look like a medieval Rastafarian) and demeanor (75% willing servant, 25% serial killer) make him a sort of unhinged roving character on his own. He somehow perfectly captures the play’s dark undercurrents.

Rounding out the strong and dedicated ensemble are Alessia Ambriz (in a small but pivotal ending role), Glenda Stewart, Addison Allen and Anysah Galvan.

One image keeps coming back to me from the opening-weekend performance I saw: soldiers “sweeping away” the battle dead but with brooms never touching, the bodies rolling off the stage of their own volition, as more peasants become fodder for royal bluster and ambition. I’ve seen “Pippins” that turn the war scenes into little more than play-acting, with clever ribbons “spilling” blood and fanciful battlefield ballets. This “Pippin” is grim, even in the bouncy optimism of the first act, when it comes to the toll of war.

Throughout, we get a slow, inextricable sense of a slowly disintegrating sense of order. We’re not immune to it in so-called enlightened democratic times. This is the part of “Pippin” that can be scariest of all. What is the natural human political response to disorderliness? Violence, repression, totalitarianism. It happened 1,200 years ago. It happens today.


 

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

Comments (6)

  • Steph

    Really? ANOTHER stellar offering from li’l ol’ Selma?

    How they do it and why they can do it is curious, but that they actually do it is phenomenal.

    For you to compare it to Heathers, Spring Awakening, and the still haunting Cabaret means this Summer Sessions must’ve pulled off another huge piece of art. Selma. Little stage, big dreams Selma.

    Stunning. We’re so lucky to have them in the Central Valley and I can’t wait to see this show!

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    • Jessica Dimpel

      Yes! It is stellar! Don’t miss it. Pippin is my absolute favorite show and they do a magnificent job with it.

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  • Jessica

    I was so excited to see that Pippin has aged so well. It seems even more relevant now, then it did when I first saw it and fell in love with it…many years ago. This cast and creative team deserve sold out houses and standing ovations every night. I will definitely be returning to see the rest of their season. What a gem!

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but the character’s name is Catherine, but Kindle Cowger’s performance as is the rest of the cast’s is immaculate and uncomfortable in all the right ways. Bravo!!

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  • Jackie Ryle

    Very much appreciate reading your insightful and always informative comments after seeing the show. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and understand a little more why after reading your comments! To echo others, yes! Selma does a stellar job!

    reply
  • Marisa

    Bravo to Summer, and SAC! A job very well done! I enjoyed aspects of this production of Pippin JUST AS MUCH as I did when I saw it on Broadway!!

    **side note: I am unclear on who “Elizabeth” is, as mentioned in the paragraph pertaining to Kindle’s performance.

    reply

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