Smoking hot ‘Pippin’ trades circus for sexy

By on July 24, 2019

The cast of EPAC’s “Pippin’ (LNP file photo)

Things got hot on the Sharadin Bigler stage starting Thursday, July 18. While summer temperatures felt like over 100 degrees outside things sweltered during EPAC’s opening weekend of “Pippin.”

I’m not talking about actual temperature. The old “playhouse in the park” recently got a much-needed update to its HVAC system. No, the theatre was a nice and cool spot to avoid last weekend’s heatwave. What heated up the stage was a raucous and blush-inducing performance of a 70s era Broadway hit filled with gyrating hips, hotties high on poles, and skimpy get-ups.

Pippin (Jeremy Hammer) is the eldest son of King Charlemagne, a.k.a. Charles (Kevin Lambert), but for all intents, constructions, and purposes is an angel-voiced Everyman. The heir to the throne has returned home after time at university and wants to find his life extraordinary; to this end he is urged on by the Leading Player (Michael Roman) who, with the aid of the other players (ensemble) on the stage, winds the tale before us.

Seeking to find himself, Pippin goes off to war with his despotic father and aloof brother, Lewis (Jordan Eck), who has allied himself with the King’s wife, Fastrada (Elizabeth Checchia). Fastrada likes to run up the kingdom’s accounts, enjoys far too many libations, and is adept at climbing the stripper pole. The bloody fray of war — insert here a bit of rape and pillage for the conquering forces — is too much for the sensible and virginal Pippin who retreats to the countryside home of his grandmother, Berthe (Clare Daher).

Basking in the joy of simple things, Pippin comes to learn more about love. One synopsis of the show describes Pippin as being stuck in “licentious and lusty sexual entanglements” while another is more factual and writes, “at first he enjoys the easy sensuality, but soon the interaction turns darker, and Pippin participates in a number of orgies.” It’s getting hotter on stage, but by the end of the debauchery Pippin is feeling unfulfilled and without purpose.

Enter once again the Leading Player who pushes the story line into revolt as he unmasks the wickedness of Pippin’s father, a tyrant to his people. Fastrada helps matters (and raises the temp) by “Spread(ing) a Little Sunshine” of her own and making it convenient for Pippin to murder his father. She hopes Lewis will become king. Not so. But our hero, the new King Pippin, wears the crown with a heavy head and lacks the experience to manage a country.

Take a breath. Cool off. Splash some water on your face. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. Here comes Act II.

Pippin is lost. He is a wandering shell of a man looking for greatness unable to find it. At the depths of a sorrowful existence he is taken in by Catherine (Jordyn McCrady). With Catherine and her son, Theo (Sanjay Samuel), Pippin settles into life. But he does not settle well and cannot fight away the feelings of the “Extraordinary” things he is meant to do. Then there’s a scene about a duck and Samuel brings down the house with laughter.

Things wrap up quickly. Pippin leaves Catherine and her boy only to discover what his father and the Leading Player have been telling him all along, nothing is completely fulfilling. By the time the grand finale has arrived, the Leading Player’s show (which in the Broadway Revival becomes a circus-like affair) has gone defiantly off its rails; Pippin breaks script and chooses his own destiny with Catherine and Theo. However, there is always an Everyman and as Theo looks on with wonderment the band (led by Zach Smith) strikes up again to let us all know the cycle will never go unbroken.

“Charles” Kevin Lambert, “Pippin” Jeremy Hammer, “Fastrada” Elizabeth Checchia, “Lewis” Jordan Eck. (left to right) Shot on July 15, 2019 at the Ephrata Performing Arts Center. (LNP file photos)

Breaking the fourth wall

Pippin is a lot of fun because it breaks the fourth wall early and often, giving the audience member a feeling of inclusion in the festivities. At times, this can be a bit awkward as EPAC’s sexually charged version of “Pippin” is more voracious and tantalizing than any other production of the musical I have before seen. While past productions of “Pippin” I’ve viewed have portrayed the sex more subtly, directors Edward Fernandez and Kristen Pontz pull no punches as characters find themselves in a variety of situations, positions, and pleasantries.

I seem to have fixated far too long on this one point — sex — when what should be garnering all the attention is the magnitude of the mesmerizing choreography on display in “Pippin.” Movement is a whirlwind as Pontz, who serves as choreographer and co-director, tames a tornadic affect-of-dance and funnels motion into an essential part of storytelling. The show’s movement is as an integral part of the storyline as is the tale presented by the Leading Player.

And speaking of, Roman is built for parts like this; he’s a natural leader on stage and easily commands both the actors and the audience. Casting Roman in this role was no fluke; EPAC regulars will without a doubt remember his performances in “Peter and the Starcatcher,” “Heathers,” and “Shrek: The Musical.” He is a young force on the stage with massive potential to be even greater.

Roman’s presence is triumphant but nowhere near as blazing and memorable as Daher in a roll small enough to be overlooked. Catapulted to the forefront of the action for really only one scene, Berthe’s “No Time at All” is a pivotal moment in the show. Daher’s performance shows how important it is to man the role with a confident and bold (and a little spicy) actress.

As the heat wave outside subsides, rest assured the Sharadin Bigler stage is still smoking hot as “Pippin” runs for another two weekends. Get your tickets at ephrataperformingartscenter.com.

Michael C. Upton is a freelance writer specializing in arts and leisure. He welcomes comments at somepromcu@gmail.com and facebook.com/SomebodiesProductions.

Michael Roman, “leading Player” and Jeremy Hammer, “Pippin”. Shot at the Ephrata Performing Arts Center on July 15, 2019.

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