Venus Cabaret Stage
At the Mercury Theater
by Dan Zeff
Chicago – L. Walter Stearns has an amazing ability to take a splashy musical and scale it down to a show that’s at least as rewarding as the original. He did it at the Porchlight Theater and now at the Mercury Theater and its studio adjunct, the Venus Cabaret. This time it is “Pippin” that Stearns is stripping to its foundations, coming up with one of the most creative and entertaining productions of his luminous career.
“Pippin” was one of the longest running musicals of the 1970’s, criticized a bit for an unimpressive book but cheered for Bob Fosse’s direction and choreography. If ever there was a director’s show, it was “Pippin.” Fitting snugly in the intimate Venus Cabaret, it’s still a director’s show, but now the director is Stearns, though with a nod of artistic appreciation to the Bob Fosse original.
The setting is the Middle Ages in France. Pippin is the young heir apparent to the mighty emperor Charlemagne. Pippin should be feeling good about himself, as next in line for perhaps the most powerful job on the continent, give or take the pope. The lad’s problem is that he feels unfulfilled. He was more than a monarchy, but he doesn’t know what.
So in the first act Pippin samples a handful of possibly fulfilling paths. He starts with the glory of war, very much admired during the Middle Ages, but Pippin is too kind hearted to accept the injustice and brutality of the military life. Next he tries romance (and sex) but that doesn’t work for him. Then comes a thirst for social justice, so he turns into a revolutionary. He stumbles on through the less effective second act, finally finding happiness with Catherine, an attractive widow, and the couple settle down to a satisfying life of middle class domesticity.
“Pippin” is built on one huge anachronism. The narrative of the show is more like a second tier “Candide,” another show that suffers from an insecure book. But the manner of “Pippin” at the Venus Cabaret hits the bull’s-eye. The story is presented like a show within a show, with a crafty smiling master of ceremonies, listed as the Leading Player possibly the Devil, serving as our guide. The ensemble is dressed Goth style, a riff on the rehearsal costumes worn in “Chicago,” another Fosse hit.
The performers may dress liked they come from another time period, but they talk (and swear) like very modern men and women. Only Pippin dresses in anything close to modern civilian clothes. Otherwise there isn’t any particular visual sense of place. Scenery is limited to a couple of incidental pieces of furniture on the otherwise small stage. Projections flash onto a row of vertical screens at the rear of the stage.
The show sets off Pippin’s innocent and yearning personality against the decadence and deviousness of the other characters, Catherine excepted. The other major men and women are Pippin’s father Charlemagne, his half brother Lewis, Lewis’s scheming and ambitious mother Fastrada, Pippin’s sprightly grandmother Berthe, and the widow Catherine. They can all belt out Stephen Schwartz’s songs as well as energetically and precisely handle Brenda Didier’s scintillating Fosse-ish choreography.
The characters may be mostly sinister and greedy, but they are fun to hear and watch. There aren’t any stand-alone hits in Schwartz/s score, but within the context of the evening the numbers work beautifully. The biggest cheers on opening night went to the Chicagoland veteran Iris Lieberman leading an audience sing along as grandmother Berthe. There are also listenable solos by Pippin (“Corner of the Sky”) and Fastrada (“Spread a Little Sunshine”), a duet by Charlemagne and Pippin (“War Is a Science”), and the mood setting opening ensemble number “Magic to Do.”
Director Stearns has always cast his shows with performers who fit the personalities and look of their characters to a T. These actors are usually unfamiliar (at least to me) but they fit their roles like they were born to play them. Koray Tarhan is a diminutive young man with outsized singing and acting and dancing skills. The prince is an appealing guy who tries to do the right thing in a society that places little value on that virtue. Tarhan rounds out his that includes a walking handstand.
Donterrio Johnson’s Leading Player fills the master of ceremonies function like the sleazy night club MC in “Cabaret,” another hit show that steps outside the boundaries of conventional musical theater in its style and edgy sensibility. Johnson often gets cozy with the audience, artfully seducing us into the P layer’s cynical world. To increase the rapport with the audience, actors serve a pastry and a carrot drink to each spectator during the evening.
The supporting performers are uniformly outstanding, whether in solo roles or in their ensemble songs and dances. Don Forston, like Iris Lieberman, has been an A list member of the Chicagoland acting community for decades, and makes a sly and ruthless Charlemagne. Adam Fane is perfect as the oily Lewis, Nicole Armold a refreshing contrast as Catherine to all the grasping and double dealing surrounding Pippin. And she can sing up a storm. Sawyer Smith is a lanky and sinister Fastrada. Kayla Boye and Michael Rawls form a high-achieving two-person chorus. Young Gabriel Robert is properly cute as Catherine’s little son.
A thee-piece combo accompanies the musical numbers from the side of the stage. The amplified piano does sometimes drown out the singers. Equalizing the sound balance would be appropriate. But pianist-conductor Andrew Milliken, guitarist Diego Salcedo, and percussionist Courtney Anne McNally do put out a lot of qualify sounds for just three pieces.
The atmosphere of the production is hugely enhanced by Rachel Boyland’s Goth costumes and Dustin Derry’s dramatic lighting. G. “Max” Maxin IV has designed some of the most evocative and imaginative video projections I have ever seen.
Stearns’s directing deftly fits the action to the minimal Venus cabaret space, mixing action on the stage platform with entrances and exists on the aisles. Performers often interact directly with the viewers, not as gimmicks but as natural settings for the show. Stearns’s production doesn’t hide behind the circusy spectacle flaunted by the original and road companies. “Pippin” now joins with the revival of “Avenue Q” at the Mercury Theatre to offer local playgoers and tourists the best double bill of the season.
The show gets a rating of.
“Pippin” runs through December 16 at the Venus Cabaret, 3741 North Southport Avenue. Performances are Wednesday (beginning October 31) through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $60 to $65. Call (773) 325-1700 or visit www.mercurytheaterchicago.com.