As I arrived at Miller Outdoor Theatre, I had an open mind toward the musical production Pippin. This is the city's 49th summer of free outdoor theater—a beloved Houston tradition. I love many of the TUTS productions, and I was excited to see the all-Houston cast, especially Houston favorite Holland Vavra, who plays the important Leading Player who shadows the naïve and confused Pippin (Thomas Williams) on his way to figuring out what's important in life.
Basically, Pippin is the son of a monarch Charles (Brian Mathis) and wants to find his “corner of the sky.” On that journey, he gets a lot of advice about “simple joys” and such, and even commits imaginative patricide, following it, weirdly, with a happy little tune called “Morning Glow.” He's told by the Leading Player that he is “On the Right Track,” whatever that is, but through kitschy adventures and incomprehensible time travel, he realizes the ordinary ain’t so bad.
But there’s a lot going on: Is the play camp, comedy, Monty Python-esque history, or maybe some kind of psychological inquiry into why we want something more than la vie quotidienne? Uh, not sure, and, as the long and repetitive numbers dragged on, I wasn’t sure if I really cared.
Pippin declares “I promise not to waste my life on commonplace pursuits” and wants something “fulfilling,” yet his pursuits are carried out with so much hesitation and back-pedaling that it gets exhausting. For such a psychological show, it seems to plod along, like a preachy allegory that keeps hitting you over the head with what everything should represent. As Pippin whines, “I just want to be dedicated to something too,” I wanted the show to be dedicated to one thing or the other: the mystique of the players under Vavra’s magical spell or Pippin’s journey.
The circus/vaudeville/jazz numbers of the players never seem in sync with the medieval/contemporary tales of Pippin, and the costumes seem like dance recital costumes that are kind of weary and predictable. It was a strange kaleidoscope of time, place and sensibility, and it never really gelled comfortably, even with strong performances. The sets were good, but most of the dancing within them seemed awkward and contrived.
I know Pippin won Tony awards for best direction and best revival, but that was a long time ago. The show's insistent anachronisms, tiresome story and one-dimensional characters seem more in line with a spoof of a musical than an earnest production. That might be okay if the music and dancing were better, but it really isn’t; no single song stood out as something you might want to listen over again.
Vavra was indeed the highlight of the show, with an edgy attitude that combined the comic and the sinister into a character who represents the psychological lure of fortune, fame and the wish to do something “extraordinary” that occupies so much real estate in Pippin’s head. Her vocals, movement and interpretive skills were far superior to anyone else’s performances in the show, and seeing her is worth the price of the ticket (if you decide to pay).
The second act got a second wind with the appearance of Betty Marie Muessig as Catherine, a widow with a son who eventually captures Pippin’s heart. She had wonderful vocals and an interesting character, and great comedic timing. Of all the supporting players, hers was the strongest performance, and she really lit up the stage.
That said, Pippin requires a few caveats. First, if you are looking for an “all ages” show, I am not sure this one qualifies. There are a lot of sexual innuendos and double-entrendres, and maybe most of them would go over a kid’s head. But there is a scene with two adults in bed and it is pretty obvious what is going on, and there is some strong language. Perhaps this would have been better suited to the retired TUTS Underground series that did more R-rated, envelope-pushing shows where everyone was aware of shenanigans from the get-go.
The Bob Fosse-inspired choreography by Michelle Gaudette seems at odds with the spirit of Pippin's journey—although I understand Fosse's groundbreaking style was successful at the time. Here, in this Pippin, it seems sort of dated and vulgar, and I didn’t understand the point of certain numbers, some of which just had dancers sitting making weird gestures and clapping sounds. By default, paying homage means competing with shows like Chicago and All That Jazz and Cabaret, and this story and score doesn’t come close to any of these well-known successes. That kind of choreography requires superlative dancing, and the ensemble, although talented, seemed uneven in their abilities.
Even the ending, with Pippin seduced by his former ambitions at the price of losing Catherine and her son Theo, seems creepy and sinister and dark. A cynical show, Pippin is not for those looking for more light-hearted fare. But it is free, so go and enjoy the already established talent of Vavra, and look forward to the upcoming Houston-based talent we'll be seeing in future productions.
Thru July 16. Free (Reserved seats from $25). Miller Outdoor Theatre. More info at tuts.com.