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Pippin Comes Of Age

Circle Theatre Grand Rapids stages sexy, sincere 1972 musical about finding yourself in others.
Marryn Barney as narrator

Marryn Barney as narrator /Circle Theatre Grand Rapids

A woman in the audience turned to her companion and said, not disapprovingly: “It’s borderline nudity!” From the next row over, a man responded: “Have you been to the beach lately?”

It’s true: the cast of Pippin (onstage at Circle Theatre through July 23rd) doesn’t wear all that much. Really, the show is sex-drenched. The first act is, anyway (not every musical requires an Intimacy Coordinator). But it’s about more than sex. By the end, the musical sharpens its focus -- revealing itself to be a celebration of ordinary life. It’s like Tolstoy, really... except no one throws themselves in front of a train.

Pippin premiered in 1972, a fact made clear by the music, choreography, and the outfits. Decked out in a particularly glorious ensemble is our narrator (played by Marryn Barney, whose charisma cannot be resisted). She introduces the audience to Pippin (Jake Bieniewicz), second son of Charlemagne.

Pippin, like many young men, yearns for something great. Bieniewicz plays him well, capturing the thrum of his ambition and the ruin it could lead to, as well as the character’s essential innocence. That would count for something, but not enough, if Bieniewicz couldn’t sing. Fortunately, he can.

It’s in the songs that Pippin can feel most dated, though. Everything dates eventually of course, but there’s something about musicals from this time period (part-incense-and-peppermint and part-musk) that makes them age more quickly than the great musicals that came before them. Which isn’t to say they aren’t fun and sometimes even moving -- they are.

However, the dancing’s great all the way through. Consistently this season, Circle Theatre has embraced the joy of dance. Pippin is no exception. The actors’ energy is contagious because they’re clearly enjoying themselves. The audience is, too.

Pippin tries to find fulfillment in battle, political intrigue, sex, and power. Nothing brings him peace. Then, he meets Catherine, a widow (Rebekah Levine), who will ask him to make a choice that will define the rest of his life. Levine has proven herself a terrific actress before and she does so here as well, pivoting from comedic to earnest with clarity and grace.

It may be that Levine pivots more perfectly than the musical itself does. Pippin begins as a sexy, silly, slightly meta comedy before revealing a seriousness message: living for oneself gets old but living for others, however ordinarily, is evergreen. If that pivot isn’t perfectly graceful, well, neither is life. Given the level of talent onstage, you really ought to see the show.


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