“Pippin,” currently on offer from Acting Against Cancer (AAC), has a delicious contradiction at its core; it’s full of outrageous spectacle, but the central message is that outrageous spectacle is empty and pointless.
With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked,” “Godspell,” lots of other classics), and a book by Roger O. Hirson, “Pippin” is nevertheless unmistakably a creation of the original production’s choreographer and director, Bob Fosse.
The 1972 musical recounts the story of Pippin (Michael Detmer), son of eighth-century conqueror Charlemagne. Pippin is seeking a meaningful and fulfilling life, and looks all over to find it. That story is told as a play within a play of sorts, with a Leading Player (Myranda Thomas) addressing the audience as a narrator. This setup suggests that on some level Pippin is an actor playing Pippin — probably just the latest in a long line of Pippins.
The Leading Player has as much stage time and as many songs as the titular Pippin. Like a lot of Fosse, it’s a meta-sexy pseudo Brechtian attempt to be deeply silly and deadly serious at the same time. It’s also probably asking the same question that Albert Camu asked in “The Myth of Sisyphus:” Is life completely pointless and should we all kill ourselves?
Acting Against Cancer’s production, directed by Remy Sisk, walks the tightrope between the show’s serious and seriously-empty aspects. That balancing act is key to making “Pippin” work at its best.
Considering the budget and time constraints that AAC works within, Sisk has staged a huge version of this show. About half the 29-member ensemble is made up of performers from Louisville-based circus group CirqueLouis. A 12-person orchestra plays just offstage.
The circus folk not only inhabit the stage, they also take to the audience, juggling, balancing on rolling globes, and climbing aerial silks to perform 15 feet above the audience’s heads.
The musical theater actors function as a tight unit, dancing, moving swiftly from one scene to the next, and taking snarky asides to the audience. This speaks well of Sisk, and of choreographers Zachary Boone and Paul McElroy.
The circus performers similarly hit their marks quickly and efficiently, and seem to all be good at doing what they do circus-wise. But several of the younger circus performers had a newbie deer-in-the-headlights look, robbing some big theatrical moments of their full impact.
The use of circus in this production is at its best when it leaves the youngsters offstage, and lets the professionals shine, like the moment at the top of act two when the action stops and focuses on a single impressive juggling act performed atop a rola bola balancing board. Or later, when two characters’ romantic moment is mirrored beat-for-beat by a movement duet between two of the circus performers.
The team up of AAC and CirqueLouis is a powerful union, and the level of spectacle is delightful. Even with its shortcomings, AAC’s “Pippin” is quite a feat of direction, staging and people-wrangling on the part of Sisk.
The major frustration with this production is the uneven technical side of the show, there were often performers performing in the dark, and — on Sunday’s matinee at least — Detmer and Thomas’ microphones at best left their songs sounding tinny and strained, at worst rendering their voices nigh unhearable.
That’s a shame; Detmer and Thomas’ voices sounded great when they could be heard, and they had good chemistry, a necessary element for a good production of “Pippin.”
The lighting and sound problems are both worth mentioning due to the unique space at Art Sanctuary, where “Pippin” is being performed. While it has a lot of possibility, the cavernous ceilings must make balancing sound levels a nightmare, and to fully light the playable areas would take at least twice as many lighting instruments as the roughly 50 I counted in the air. Many of those 50 or so lights were clearly brought in by lighting designer Jesse Alford and AAC.
Louisville theater needs more venues, and Art Sanctuary can be the perfect place for massive shows like “Pippin,” but it needs more investment in theatrical lighting and sound equipment.
The sound problems were ironically exacerbated by the excellent work the orchestra was doing. Conducted by Bourbon Baroque’s John Austin Clark, the musicians ambled gamely back and forth between sounding like a classical orchestra and a 70s-era rock band.
Shortcomings aside, Louisville audiences will enjoy this ambitious show full of solid singing, circus, dancing and great music. Hopefully “Pippin” foretells more great things, and Sisk will continue to push himself, and Acting Against Cancer, daring the to aim higher in their search for both outrageous spectacle and meaningful fulfillment.
“Pippin” is back on stage Thursday August 29 through Saturday August 31. All shows begin at 8 p.m., at Art Sanctuary, 1433 S. Shelby Street.
Tickets are $22 in advance and $24 at the door. Tickets can be purchased in advance at actingagainstcancer.com. The show runs two hours with one 15-minute intermission.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this review stated that Stephen Schwartz wrote “Frozen.” That is incorrect. “Frozen” was written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez.
This post has been updated.