At Berkeley Playhouse, ‘Pippin’ still needs to work on making magic

Group of people performing on stage
Berkeley Playhouse/Courtesy

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Between its 1972 and 2013 Broadway productions, “Pippin” has received 21 Tony nominations, of which it won nine titles. But based on Berkeley Playhouse’s currently playing rendition, you wouldn’t exactly know it.

Directed by Kimberly Dooley, Berkeley Playhouse’s “Pippin” opened to Bay Area audiences on April 5. Originally performed in 1972 on Broadway and revived in 2013, the musical follows a fantastical performance troupe conducted by a Leading Player. Our protagonist is young Pippin (based on the real-life son of first century King of the Franks, Charlemagne), whom we follow on his quest for an extraordinary life. In Goldilocks-esque fashion, Pippin searches for the foundations of a meaningful existence and his place in the world through trial and error. He tries enlisting as a soldier in his father’s army, engaging in hedonistic pleasures in the countryside and even vying for the crown — ultimately, each attempt leaves him feeling the same: “empty and vacant.”

And yet “Pippin” is a show that relies on spectacle in order to reach its full (and quite brilliant) potential. The 2013 Broadway production, for instance, features a plethora of fantastical acrobatic feats, which make the production so striking. Players soar through the air on flying trapezes, strike the splits while suspended by silks, create a straight horizontal line with their bodies while grasping a Chinese pole, and even form a human jump-rope (you sort of have to see it to believe it) for other actors to leap over.

At Berkeley Playhouse, “Pippin” achieves a mere whisper of the aforementioned rendition. That’s not to say that the Playhouse — a group founded less than 15 years ago and dedicated to community educational programs and putting on shows with which the audience can share dialogue — should be expected to match a centuries-old institution that spends an average $8-12 million on each musical. To ask for so much would be supercilious, not to mention downright nonsensical.

But it does mean that a smaller company like Berkeley Playhouse should not put on a show so fundamentally based on its tremendous scale without spinning the production in a way that’s more accommodating to a less generous budget. Framing the touring troupe as a group of wayward thespians, for instance, would avert the challenges of circus performance. Instead, the Playhouse stays true to the vision of a “Pippin” full of gymnastics — without the actual breathtaking tricks that seal the deal.

At Berkeley Playhouse, however, “Pippin” does not fall totally flat. Kamren Mahaney excels as the titular character, exhibiting not only impressive vocal range and powerful belts, but also a keen comprehension of Pippin’s tumultuous internal and external journeys. As Fastrada, Charlemagne’s extravagant and promiscuous wife, Mary Kalita is so self-assured and clear in her diction that she appears to have been destined to take the stage.

It’s Anne Clark, however, who really steals the show. Clark plays Catherine, a Kristin Chenoweth-like widowed farm owner who pursues Pippin’s affections. And though Catherine doesn’t appear until the second act (when, in classic musical fashion, the plot becomes excessively dark), Clark capitalizes on her limited time onstage, performing her allotted numbers with a clear and golden voice.

A preeminent example of metatheatre, “Pippin” explores the tensions between the theatrical troupe members within the musical, as well as those between the theatricality of the musical and us, the actual audience. In all this disruption of the fourth wall, the musical bears a notable resemblance to “Cabaret” (an unsurprising fact considering that director Bob Fosse worked on the original 1972 Broadway production of “Pippin” right after completing the award-winning film adaptation of “Cabaret”).

This is an aspect of “Pippin” that Berkeley Playhouse carries to its own stage commendably. As our Leading Player and regular breaker of fourth walls, Alex Rodriguez exudes the pizzaz and the show-must-go-on attitude that the role calls for. Clad in black high heels, polyester tights and a corset, Rodriguez sashays across the stage and channels the show’s joint underlying currents of sexuality and mortality beautifully. With the Leading Player’s careful and calculated guidance, the surprise twist of the show’s ending hits as chillingly and unnervingly as it ought to.

So is “Pippin” worth seeing at the Playhouse? For the most part, yes, though one shouldn’t go in expecting to be blown away. Overall, its staging may be a bit clunky, an actor may come in off-beat or off-tune a couple times and not all choreography will be executed with complete synchronized precision. If nothing else, it’s a chance to orient yourself with the show’s fantastic soundtrack (which is definitely worth a listen, especially for all us confused youngsters with no idea what to do with our lives). Beyond this, supporting the production promotes local artists and institutions, including the Playhouse — which we hope will focus its efforts increasingly on less spectacle-oriented shows moving forward.

‘Pippin’ will be running at Berkeley Playhouse through May 5.

Ryan Tuozzolo is the assistant arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].