REVIEW: ‘Pippin’ shines through masks, and from within the show within the show

Mark Hughes Cobb The Tuscaloosa News
The cast rehearses for the University of Alabama Department of Theatre and Dance's production of "Pippin." [Submitted photo]

Fourth-wall breaking draws in more than ordinary, even planted on a proscenium stage, elevated above the crowd. The audience gets let in on inside gags, sees behind lights, makeup, wigs and costumes, the artifice, structure and performance of it all.

In the University of Alabama Department of Theatre and Dance’s production of Stephen Schwartz’s musical “Pippin,” the first words out of the Leading Player’s (Jalyn Crosby) mouth are “Join us.”

So that’s clear.

The knowledge you’re watching a show kinda-sorta about showing a show invites deeper than we’re-all-in-on-this intimacy: It asks you to ponder what is this about, this intrigue, romance, sex and death; this feigned, staged quest for meaning.

What’s the point of illusion? In Derek DelGaudio’s “In and Of Itself,” a stage show directed by Frank Oz, filmed for Hulu, the actor-writer-card-sharp suggests magic reveals, not conceals. It addresses identity, who we truly are versus who others think we are, complicated by what we present to the world, reacting to beliefs about what others might wish.

The only way to know what it means is to decide for yourself. In the process of seeking, you find meaning, or … something. No meaning could be your meaning.

Of course it’s OK to just enjoy sound and vision, pulled together by director Matt Davis, to dig the limber, electric, athletic dancing – choreographed by Alvon Reed, who in his kinetic hip-popping, arms and limbs breaking at odd angles, fully aware of what the original 1972 Broadway run of “Pippin” owed to director-choreographer Bob Fosse – the lovely voices, the comedic turns, the melodrama, the journeys.

And it’s cool to simply appreciate Schwartz’s hooky pop-song gifts, his delight in the corny earnestness of musical theater, the rich absurdity of this form that some mock, others revere. If you don’t walk out at least humming the refrain from “Corner of the Sky” – “Rivers belong where they can ramble/Eagles belong where they can fly” – then you’re a stronger critic than I am, and utterly immune to the chemistry of wacky sincerity that glows so deeply in this Schwartzian (“Wicked,” “Godspell,” the Disney musicals “Pocahontas,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Enchanted,” among many others) rainbow’s end of the musical spectrum.

And yes, it’s fine to leave believing that Pippin (Matthew Richards Jr.) can be happy becoming ordinary.

In Lawrence Kasdan’s 1983 film “The Big Chill,” at the reunion of a group of old college friends who, let’s face it, if they didn’t perform in “Godspell” or “Pippin” back at school – Sam certainly did – definitely sang along with those tribal experiences, an agonized minister asks: “Are not the satisfactions of being a good man among our common men great enough to sustain us anymore?”

They’re not for Pippin, son of the great king, at least as the show begins. The Players tell us of magic to be done, then introduce a supposedly new actor in the lead, though of course the Leading Player’s kind of the lead, as she manipulates all moments, a seductive Lady Macbeth/witches combo, while Pippin bobs along in her wake. Mostly.

Clear? Good.

UA’s theater and dance resembles the Crimson Tide football phenomenon in more than one respect, in that since investing, early 20th century, to develop its musical theater program, champions have resulted. One set of grads and undergrads rolls in, dazzles, and leaves audiences thinking “That was extraordinary,” and then next season other relative rookies come along and break the old Heisman-winner’s records.

What I’m saying is these companies, these UA shows, possess bench depth. It’s not unusual to see leads who can act, dance and sing, all beautifully, and it’s not strange to see an ensemble that comes together in commitment, flow, and harmony.

But Davis has taken advantage of departmental wealth such that the already-busy, fairytale-like stage, designed by Teila Vochatzer as a Disney parks-like fantastic creation (and I mean that as a sincere compliment), becomes a maddening wealth of jewels.

Anywhere you look, you’ll see a slightly different show. It’s not about stealing focus – a no-no, for an ensemble player to pull attention from main action – as about perfect focus. For example, Annaliese Chambers, as one of the unnamed players, leaps into a hilariously enthusiastic horse-like character, making the simple cart-pull a stupidly joyous bit. Yet such mad investment never falls outside of bounds, and into parody.

Except where intended as parody.

Clear? Good.

That’s true throughout the cast, not just in that one actor or instance, and a tribute to Davis and team. The show’s wildly alive.

Now to the tough part: Masks. As per current UA regulations, everyone in the building, not just audience, box office, and ushers, but actor-players on stage, wore face-coverings throughout the evening.

This reeks on so many levels, though of course it’s not the fault of cautious administrators, or anyone really, save those who’ve continually refused to take even basic precautions, and thus extended this horrific pandemic’s reach.

Think of how many times in recent months you’ve blanked, temporarily, on a masked friend, until they tugged it down for a second, or called out their name. I’ve no idea what percentage of a person’s expressions, their unspoken language, takes place under mask-covered portions, but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess: A lot.

Even the Phantom got to show his kisser.

Still, UA’s sound system delivered a crisp mix. Voices rang through. Sterling singers such as Crosby and Richards, who carry much of the lyric load, pushed on, and honestly, eyes closed, I doubt anyone would have known they were masked.

But eyes weren’t closed, and wouldn’t want to be, else you’d miss those such as Crosby and Richards who possess the charisma and skills, and have put in the work, to be playing this at any level, on any professional stage. Both the Leading Player and Pippin could strain the limits of audience tolerance, in lesser hands, but in these performances they stay intriguing, inviting, even behind covers.

Quinn Conrath takes the bluster of King Charles/Charlemagne to the 11 it deserves, and while such bombast might overwhelm a different show, within this spectacle, it’s the right tone. As the dopier – I mean, Pippin’s no Mensa candidate – son, Toby Mustard’s Lewis strikes poses and attitudes that lend extra resonance to gags, far funnier than written.

Crosby’s just lead among the numerous women stealing scenes. Mallory Wintz, as Lewis’ baby-mama Fastrada, seems to occupy a much-larger space on stage than written, and yet paradoxically does it by sly, witty underplay – at least compared to some of the volumes resounding. Annalese Starzec tears it up as Berthe, a comic-cranky grandma with the lecherous bent of a juvenile, and again, seems a vaster part of the whole than someone who’s highlighted in one song, the anthemic “No Time At All.”

The real heartbreaker, and catalyst for the show’s sweeter and darker turns, is Abby Quammen as Catherine, the widow with an estate and a son Theo (Bryan Penn), both of whom require management. The conceit of “Pippin” is that the “new actor” falls for the actual person playing Catherine, and thus both veer off script, igniting the fury of the Leading Player, as her story cycle twists from a fiery finale.

Pippin, worn down by war, by lust, by conquest, has grown weary of responsibility, and requires seduction, or at least persuasion. Catherine’s feelings begin to show in her line readings; Leading Player jumps in to make her say them again, but shrewishly.

Previously hinted-at darkness descends. Even regicide is played for laughs, and of course, being only part of a show, can be undone, by the Leading Player. Into the murk shine moments of raw feeling, a realism absent from the sheen and glitz. Quammen is masterful at walking the lines, letting vulnerability radiate through, even while ostensibly following the Leading Player’s arc.

It’s probably not a spoiler for a nearly 50-year-old hit to indicate Davis doesn’t shy from emotionally naked moments, before turning to the preferred – by Schwartz, among others – Theo ending, in which Penn – already hilarious, especially with his duck tales – morphs to become the mysterious drawing-in figure.

“Pippin” proves a fine choice for required-mask performances at UA, with outsized movement, goes-to-11 performances, and pristine chorus. Covered or not, it’s lovely to see all these faces again.


“Pippin” concludes its run with a 2 p.m. matinee Sunday, in the Marian Gallaway Theatre, Rowand-Johnson Hall on the UA campus. Tickets are $14 for students; $17 for seniors, and UA faculty and staff; and $25 general. They’re available in the Rowand-Johnson ticket office, by phone at 205-348-3400, or online at For more, see