Visionary Director Challenges Sleepy Ventura Cou with Engaging Spectacle
Stephen Schwartz's strange, often-anachronistic, fourth-wall-breaking musical Pippin will often set out with big aspirations - fittingly - and usually succeeds when it turns heads, catching the attention of its audiences both witting and unwitting. With its numbers ranging from big and flashy to intimate and heartfelt, this musical is a refreshing addition to the 2019 lineup at Conejo Players Theatre.
Director Shawn W. Adams-Lanz has consistently shown a notable sense of coherence and vision with each of his many, many contributions to Ventura County theater, and Pippin is his crowning jewel. In the Director's Note - which you should read in the program - he says that this is one of his favorite musicals, and his love for the material is clear on the stage.
Through the help of a fantastic crew, CPT's Pippin has created the most visually interesting show this year - whether you look at Shawn McCabe's and Elena Mills' striking set design, Ken Patton's array of costumes, Christopher Mahr's hair and makeup design, or the choreography by both Arryck Adams-Lanz and Julie Hackett.
And every one of those elements is set to full-blast and aimed directly at the audience, as Pippin is wont to do. Striking familiar tones of Hair and Cabaret, what this tumultuous blend of elements ends up doing is delivering a very challenging experience for viewers that are fans of Pippin and newcomers alike. Let this reviewer simply say that sitting with some of Ventura County's more... typical audience members was at times uncomfortable because of the content happening not twenty feet away (and, for some, even closer). And that's a good thing.
The cast of Pippin are assembled from some of the best talent available, and all are perfectly suited for the task before them. Lauren Rachel absolutely shines, however darkly, as the Leading Player - a role that won both Ben Vereen and Patina Miller the Tony on Broadway - and she revels in her antagonistic control over the events in the show. It's a kind of role that Rachel has not yet stepped into, and it's wholly exhilarating to see.
Both Scott Quintard and Dani Orjala return to the stage after extended breaks, and in full force. Quintard plays Charles, the King, and his deeply commanding presence is awesome to behold. He captures the audience right at the start, and then seals the deal with the "War is a Science" number. Orjala rules the stage in a very "Lady MacBeth" or, for hip audience members, "Cersei Lannister" fashion as Queen Fastrada (probably more the latter, when it comes to her son, the fantastic Ezra Eells' Lewis). Orjala's impressive movement, voice, and acting talent make her the complete triple threat and give her big number, "Spread a Little Sunshine," that extra something.
Jake Marone stars as the titular Prince Pippin, whose voice rings out in the higher tenor range, giving his memorable numbers of "Corner of the Sky," "Morning Glow," and "Extraordinary" that youthful, leading-man quality that they need, but also remind the audience of Pippin's young age - a major theme of the show. Marone has to contend with some impressive physical feats in some of his songs, which make the others where he's "standing-and-singing" feel a little more incongruent. (Though this show's presentation of the "Love Song" number might be a stand-out moment, featuring Marone himself on guitar.)
Two actors especially electrify the entire CPT house with their notable entrances to the story, indeed changing the whole atmosphere of the show: Aileen-Marie Scott as Berthe, and Janelle Phaneuf as Catherine. These two women are integral to the story of Pippin, and neither of them ever cease to fully exist from the moment they step onstage in their respective places. Scott's "No Time At All," complete with a breathtaking display of aerial choreography, is one of the most joyous moments in the production.
Phaneuf has proven herself a leading lady in the past, and she brings something very special to Catherine, combining many of her experiences in past productions to make Catherine the most real, the most grounded, and the most relatable of all of the characters in Pippin. Her crystal-clear and expertly tuned voice is a perfect match for songs like "Kind of Woman" and "Love Song."
Not to be overshadowed by any of his adult castmates, 12 year-old Leo Helfrich leaves an unforgettable mark on the show as Theo, Catherine's son. Helfrich has been a staple of "Junior" and family shows over at Moorpark's High Street Arts Center, but here in Pippin he becomes a sort of centerpiece to the challenging content that this production displays. Here is a show laden with scantily-clad (or sometimes barely-clad) adults, and sex ("presented pastorally"), that has a child in its midst, who then further disarms the audience by swearing and operating rude gestures.
But probably the most refreshingly uncomfortable moment comes when these adults - who have spent the last hour-and-a-half rubbing, bumping, and grinding all over the stage - forcefully strip Helfrich, Phaneuf, and Marone down to their underwear. It is probably the most engaging, powerful, and challenging scene that this reviewer has experienced in this county in the last few years, which then culminates in the cast lifting young Helfrich up in the air in preparation for a grisly sacrifice - a huge step indeed from crying over a dead duck.
Simply put, CPT's Pippin is an unforgettable experience that must be seen to be understood (and then maybe stew it over in your mind for a bit afterward). It's a story of growing up, finding your place in the world, and understanding what's truly important to living a fulfilling life. But it's told through the youthful, unfocused, sex-addled, hyperactive mind of a young man as he jumps from branch to branch trying to find one that will finally support his weight.
Pippin runs through Sunday, December 1st. Shows are Friday - Saturday at 8:00pm, Sundays at 2:00pm, with two additional Saturday matinees on November 23rd and 30th at 2:00pm.
Tickets are available online at https://www.conejoplayers.org, or at the box office at 805-495-3715.