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Review: Slick treatment, first-rate cast elevate Freefall's 'Pippin'

Kellie Rhianne, Emanuel Carrero, Hannah Benitez and Alison Burns in Freefall Theatre’s July 2019 production of Pippin. Courtesy of Thee Photo Ninja.
Kellie Rhianne, Emanuel Carrero, Hannah Benitez and Alison Burns in Freefall Theatre’s July 2019 production of Pippin. Courtesy of Thee Photo Ninja.
Published Jul. 19, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — Pippin first came of age in 1972, when the U.S. was mired in Vietnam. The musical that launched the career of Ben Vereen in the title role echoed the antiwar sentiments of the era, but also that generation's desire to throw off the shackles of their parents' morality altogether and learn to live with their own.

The show, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Bob Fosse and Roger Hiron, has been reproduced many times, its songs covered by Michael Jackson and Diana Ross. The biggest change came from the boldest ask, when director Diane Paulus sought permission to remake the show, setting it within a Felliniesque troupe of performers and giving a twist to the ending.

That is the Pippin theaters are doing today and the one Freefall is well suited to execute. Paulus, who saw the original Pippin at 8 and was affected by it, is known for pushing the boundaries of theater. Freefall artistic director Eric Davis, who directed this show, has expressed equal commitment to moving the form forward, not simply recreating classic works. This production is a gleaming example of the theater's stated mission.

The opening curtain, a snappy reveal that the stage is narrowly set between two banks of seats, with a sauntering Kellie Rhianne as Leading Player belting out a seductive, jazzy intro number (Magic to Do) in subtle '70s throwback gear, white jeans and boots and a full 'fro, got the show off to a very fast start.

The production offers lots of surprises. Expect to be acknowledged. There is no fourth wall; actors sometimes acknowledge that they're acting. This is a quasi-mythical setting, a troupe of actors mashing up historical characters across time. None of the characters are quite real except one, and he sits quite literally among us.

The son of Charlemagne is bursting with questions about where he belongs. Daniel J. Maldonado is well-cast as handsome prince, beautifully playing the comic side with a malleable ardor, without losing vulnerability.

Characters vie to be noticed by Charlemagne (Matthew McGee), who commands a funny stretch of Act I by denying requests and sending people off to war against the Visigoths. War, the king explains, is "science" (War Is Science), For though I cannot write my name/ The men whose pens have brought them fame/ Write endless paragraphs explaining/ My campaigns.

The choreography with soldiers in chorus line, each representing a different American war, flying body parts (including Alison Burns with a lovely cameo of a decapitated talking head), and a video (designed by Davis) including nuclear blasts, all feels like Voltaire with a bit of Country Joe at Woodstock running underneath. But none of it feels too much.

Schwartz wrote the music as a college student, an age when adults are coming out of the woodwork to give you advice on what to do with your life. The compelling thing about the musical — and this production — is that each character making a play on Pippin's choice makes a strong case and every performer gives it her or his all.

Having skipped war for the countryside, he stops off to visit Berthe, Charlemagne's mother. That's McGee again, onstage as Charlemagne moments earlier, now in full wig and a dress. Her grandmotherly wisdom (No Time At All), fits the bill, and the same laundry hampers that carried body parts a scene earlier now turned into tables in her estate. Berthe even gets the audience to sing along to the chorus, karaoke lettering flashing on stage, as actors toss globe-sized beach balls into the seats.

Pippin does crave the spoils of war, namely power, but finds governing is more complicated than it looks. He craves sex, and finds it in an amazing, five-minute dance sequence (choreographed by Davis), with Alison Burns as sultry stepmother Fastrada and Emanuel Carrero as the cocky younger brother Lewis, as flames of earthly passion or eternal damnation roar in a video window.

The second act takes Pippin in a new direction, only this time it's the "right" one, Leading Player assures him. In one of the production's most complete performances, Rhianne again sets the tone with intoxicating vocals, Maldonado follows suit and musical director Michael Raabe leads a four-piece band just off-stage.

Pippin retreats to a farm, where he takes up with a widow with a young son, Theo (Will Garrabrant) , who needs a father figure. But is that really a destiny for a prince? Maldonado does some of his best work in sulking (Extraordinary), and Hannah Benitez gives such a fine performance as Catherine, the widow, that the result imparts a kind of completeness to the show, coming like an anchor leg at the end of a gold medal relay. Good luck getting tickets.

If you go

Pippin

Runs through Aug. 11. $50. 6099 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. (727) 498-5025. freefalltheatre.com.

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