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Photo by Rodney Rampy
Lauren Panter plays The Lead Player and Nicholas Hewitt plays the young prince in Randall Theatre's production of "Pippin."

Randall's 'Pippin' good for a few laughs

One of the things that Hirson-Schwartz’s “Pippin: The Musical” has had going for it is the pure spectacle of the show. Originally directed and choreographed by none other than Bob Fosse, the anemic storyline and twisting plot is, as a rule, immersed in elaborate costumes, provocative dance numbers and a high-budget set, stage and sound design.

Pippin — historically, the character is ever-so-loosely based on Pepin the Hunchback, son of Charlemagne — is a lisping and listless boy with a penchant for greatness, of which he is far from assured. The storyline follows his “rise” through various exploits that hinge vaguely around themes of militarism and sex, and other such well-worn cliches of the patriarchy. Pippin brandishes a sword. Pippin is pissed off at his dad. Pippin goes impishly to war. Pippin sews his wild oats. Pippin settles down with a boring housewife. Pippin is probably the most unvaried anti-hero you’ll ever encounter.

It’s doubly brave for a small community theater to make the choice to mount “Pippin,” since so much of the show is about pageant. Critics long have known this to be true, and the show is more often than not redeemed on elements of display, since the narrative is weak. I went in expecting it to be worse than it was. The cast and crew at Randall have made a valiant effort with “Pippin,” and despite the musical itself being notoriously iffy, the enthusiasm and vivacity of the theater’s young cast under the direction of Robin Downward makes the show about as good as it could be for a lower-budget venue.

In the leading role, Nicholas Jules Hewitt is a fun and engaging performer, with energy to spare as he rockets through his numbers. Hewitt, who also designed the set, could never be said to be lacking in infectious enthusiasm.

His leading lady, Catherine (Courtney Gage, billed in the program as Courtney Crawford, one of many errors in the Playbill) only shows up later in the show, although Gage doubles as one of a half-dozen oversexed harlequins in the formative stages of the action. Outfitted in an atrocious wig for reasons that will later become apparent, Gage does a good job as a timorous country housewife whose husband has kicked the bucket and left her a few acres of “estate” land. This theoretically comfortable setup is rapidly pummeled into mediocrity by the realities of farming life, and much of the humor of the show is revealed through the transformation of Catherine from diffident consort to unhinged harridan over the course of a few days.

Yet another gender cliche emerges as Pippin rebels against all the hen-pecking and attempts to resow his wild oats, before realizing in the end that a life of quiet domesticity — while perhaps soul-killing — is preferable to a more volatile and heroic life. Odysseus he ain’t. Hewitt and Gage have good comedic synergy onstage but little romantic or sexual chemistry.

Far more sensual and perhaps the best thing about this production is Lauren Panter. Working here in her third show at the Randall and having previously played Eponine in “Le Miserables” (based on her work here, she probably would make for a rocking Madame Thénardier), Panter is excellent as The Lead Player, the aptly named maniacal regent of a troupe of hallucinogenic vagrants who make up the ensemble cast. Panter is deliciously rakish in the role, with a singing voice that reveals an obvious professional theater training and a rock-solid jester personae.

Of the remaining cast, while nobody is particularly weak, the stand-out performances are from the more senior cast members, with Keith Fuller turning in an amusingly nutty performance as Pippin’s dad, King Charles, and Toni Holley turning in a terrific performance as Berthe, an aging but lascivious aristocrat. Deep within the frenzied gyrations of the extended cast, I again noticed a standout performance from actor Annalise Williams, who has a natural aptitude which makes one wonder why she is perennially stuffed into the chorus line at the Randall. I’d like to say more about this young artist, but her blurb in the problematic Playbill is a reprint of the bio of a different (male) cast member.

Downward and his troupe can be commended for putting together a show that is well-choreographed and amusingly rendered, considering. “Pippin: The Musical” has never been that good a show. In this case, at least, it’s enjoyably rendered and nimbly executed. There are some really fun moments, and if you’re looking for a frolicsome amuse-bouche to distract you from the encroaching wildfires, this production may be good for a few laughs.

Reach Ashland writer Jeffrey Gillespie at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.

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