by DICK KEREKES
Players by the Sea opened its 2009-20l0 season with a revival of the l972 Broadway hit, Pippin, that ran for 1,944 performances on the Great White Way. The music was written by a youthful Steven Schwartz, who is still writing them and his latest is the popular Wicked. It has been revived many times, and I have seen it at least three times I think in Jacksonville as well in Gainesville, Daytona Beach and Orlando. Looking back, I apparently saw mostly sanitized versions when compared to the creation by Director Lee Hamby, Assistant Director Jon Fine, and Choreographer Niki Stokes. Hot, Hot, Hot is the only way to describe this very foxy fairy tale about the adventures of Charlemagne’s son Pippin”
Pippin (Juan Unzueta) is a young prince in 780 A.D, just graduated from Padua University, and like many college and high school graduates today, he is unsure of what he will do to fulfill his life. He decides to become a soldier but is soon turned off by the madness and violence of war. He visits his grandmother Berthe (Laura Mauldin) who almost steals the show with her audience participating song, “No Time at All”. This swinging grandma tells Pippin to enjoy life by having many sexual encounters. (Now that is a scene you don’t want to miss!!) He does not find this very meaningful and moves on.
Pippin tries other careers even being King for a while, but fails at all of them, Then he encounters a very unusual widow, Catherine (Kendra Holten-Helton), who sings like an angel, has beauty, a foot fetish, a large estate, and a small son Theo (Cooper Gleb). After working out some initial sexual problems, (without the aid of Dr. Ruth), it looks as though Pippin has finally found happiness. But has he? Well, that is as far as I will take you in the plot, the rest you can discover for yourself.
If Players had a billboard on its building listing the leading actors, then certain Pippin and a character would be on it. Miranda Lawson is remarkable in the role known as Leading Player and acts as the “ringmaster” who is the audience guide and controls the action on the stage. Ms. Lawson gives the part just the right edginess while singing and dancing beautifully.
This version of Pippin has really interesting with over the top characters. Dave Alan Thomas makes his Player’s debut, as the larger than life King Charles (Charlemagne). If you were luckily enough to see Mr. Thomas’s dazzling performance as Roger Debris in The Producers in Orange Park, you know how dynamic he can be. He matches that performance and more as the lustful warring king.
Staci Cobb has become a mainstay in musical theatre in Jacksonville. Doing a musical? Call Staci, she can do it all. She plays the King’s evil wife, Fastrada, with gusto as she belts out her sexy version of “Spread a Little Sunshine” while dallying with her dimwitted son Lewis played by Gary Baker. Have a truly zany character role to fill, then Gary is your man. He is one of the best and funniest around.
Three of the outstanding performers in the recent blockbuster production of Hair are back contributing their considerable talents as players in this show. It is always a pleasure to see Renee Freeman, Samuel Willis and Vincent Teschel on stage.
I saw Minda Larsen’s name in the program and has a long and impressive resume, by appearing as a vocalist in Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall, the Tribeca New Music Festival, just to name a few and also visiting 45 counties as a lead vocalist on a cruise ship! Wow!
Completing the outstanding ensemble are Clenton Hollinger, Dominique Allen Lawson, Leslie Richart and Cori Running.
I loved Costume Designer Zeina Salame’s creations. With the back of the stage a wall to wall rainbow curtain, when the girls came out, I thought I had been transported to Cabaret and there were the Kit Kat girls right there on stage. Except for the King’s regal clothing and Catherine’s sexy form fitting dress, the name of the game was black black black, yes, very sexy black attire!!…I love black?
Musical Director Samuel Clein was conducting and on the piano along with Bryant Miano on keyboard, Michael Tillis doing percussion and Sean Tillis playing bass. The small “orchestra” performed to perfection. Niki Stokes’ choreography was exciting and truly sensational.
The Matt Calise and Jim Wiggins light design contributed greatly to the visual impact of the Lee Hamby designed set. Wayne Phillips did double duty as stage manager and Light board operator.
Any time you have a chance to hear Juan Unzueta sing, take it. When he sings “Corner of the Sky”, you will be mesmerized. His Pippin is the best I have ever seen so don’t miss it. If you have seen this show before believe me you probably have never seen it done this way. There is a lot of humor, a lot of fun in this show, but a very valuable lesson as well. Wisdom is only gained after experience, heartbreak, and mistakes.
As an opening night audience, we did poorly in the sing-a-long, (too many pre-show cocktails?) Perhaps if Players had a paper insert in the program with the words, future performances by audiences might be better.
In these times we should be especially thankful for the financial support that made this production possible. As always, once again Thank You, The Community Foundation’s Tom Nehl Fund and the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville.
by DICK KEREKES