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Holy Roman Angst

Pippin Directed by Brian Sands At Dunster House through November 19

By Jean-christophe Castelli

FRESH OUT OF the University of Padda, Pippin faces the same problem many liberal arts graduates face every year: how to make of life a Meaningful Experience. Unlike the rest of us, Pippin is blessed with one great advantage: He's the eldest progeny of Charlemagne, the Holy Roman emperor, a pedigree that even Fair Harvard's greatest sons could never match. But being first in line for the sucession is somehow not enough for Pippin. He needs to find, as he sings in the beginning, his Corner of the Sky.

The Holy Roman Empire may have been much bigger than Long Island, but you wouldn't think so after seeing the musical Pippin (Book by Roger O. Hirson, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz), now enjoying a lively and entertaining production at Dunster House. A rather curious musical, it is history deflated to suburban proportions, via Broadway. Pippin (Justin Richardson) is an average upper-middle class college overachiever; his dad. Charlemagne (John D. Langdon), a gruff executive type; Fastrada (Ann Henry), his mother, a matron right out of the Five Towns area; and Lewis (Mark Morland), his younger brother, the ancient equivalent of a dumb jock--a dumb warrior.

In a world where Harvard Law School hasn't been invented yet, and Success means Sucession. Pippin sets out to find true fulfillment, charging into War, sliding into Flesh, plotting Revolution, and finally finding the answer to his burning question smouldering in The Hearth--the simple life of the family, with a widow Catherine (Susan Power) and her son.

This entertaining tale is embedded in a rather stylized theatrical framework. The Leading Player (Rich Dikeman), somewhere between Brecht/Weill's Streetsinger and Family Feud's Richard Dawson in character, acts as both cynical observer and cheerful encourager, alternately telling the story and creating it. Accompanied by an amorphously mobile chorus, the Players, he is constantly on hand to remind the audience--and the other characters--that it's all just magic and illusion.

UNFORTUNATELY, THE TWO elements--the plain story and the theatrics--never quite mesh sufficiently. The success of Pippin is basically proportional to the amount of time the Leading Player stays on stage. When the musical is at its most stylized, it works best. In numbers like "War is a Science." "Simple Joys," or "On the Right Track," the music sparkles, the lyrics are clever, and the staging is amusingly effective. It's when it strives for simplicity and sincerity that Pippin falls a little short. Songs like "Corner of the Sky" the leitmotiv for the whole musical, are just a little bland.

Overall, though, the good songs win out, and all of the music is well-played under the direction of Laurence Sobel. The original Broadway production was staged in Bob Fosse's usual extravagant style, but the production here remains wisely small-scaled After a rather ragged opening, Betsy King's choreography and Brian Sands' staging work pretty smoothly within the space limitations of Dunster House's dining hall--obviously not the Shubert Theater.

This production's success is due in no small part to the tremendous enthusiasm of the cast. Rich Dikeman's Leading Player is sly, smooth, and agile. As Pippin, Justin Richardson evokes to perfection just the sort of boyish innocence and enthusiasm that the roe demands. And it's hard to believe that John D. Langdon's Charles isn't an emperor: his physical authority and voice really hold the stage. As Catherine, Pippins's final love. Susan Power conveys warms and sincerity, and on the opposite end of the scale. Ann Henry's Fastrada captures well the brashly devious and comic nature of her role Mark Morland (as Lewis) and Celia Jaffe (as Berthe, Pippin's aunt) are also very funny, and all the Players perform effectively.

Thanks to Brian Sands's direction, the production moves along at good pace, rarely flagging at the occasional rough spots. Dunster Drama's Pippin is a lively show, and if Pippin himself isn't too much of a role model in today's preprofessional world, his is an entertaining story nonetheless.

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