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Riverwalk Theatre’s ‘Pippin’ is seriously comical

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If you were the eldest son of Charlemagne, Charles the Great — who was designated by Pope Leo as the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire — you might also feel an existential ennui as to who you are and what significance your life has.

Riverwalk Theater’s passionate production of “Pippin” transforms playwright Roger O. Hirson and music director Stephen Schwartz’s obscure story into a magical carnival, exploring the inherent confusions of coming of age.

Adam Woolsey is Pippin, and brings a dead-on, serious mien to the role. As a performer who can both act and sing, his opening solo, “Corner of the Sky,” articulates the essence of the play. The line “everything has a reason, everything has a time, show me a reason” brought tears to my elderly eyes.

Woolsey’s sober musings contrast dramatically with the over-the-big-top dancing and singing of Rachel Cupples, the Leading Player of this storytelling circus.

Cupples, whose leather-clad movements are at times menacing and malevolent, drives the show. She sings, nimbly dances and fills up the room. Nay, she sucks all the air out of the room. She is aided by a supporting cast of razzle-dazzle performers, the band of players, who also animate the stage and keep things lively.

Chief among equals in this endeavor is Oralya Garza as Pippin's grandmother, Berthe. She twinkles, charms and gets a rousing round of applause after a solo in a duet with Woolsey.

Not to be outdone, Sarah Hayner arrives onstage early in Act II to give a memorable, tender performance as Catherine, the widow who captures Pippin’s heart. A scene wherein Cupples breaks the fourth wall to direct Hayner to do her scene differently evokes great laughter.

Robert Mueller is Lewis, the intense half brother of Pippin, and offers flair and pizazz. Drew Doman is Charles in this production. Charles is a legend in his own mind and sees himself as the smartest, most well-known and kingly character of all time. One can sense why director Meghan Eldred-Woolsey selected this play to open the theater’s 31st season.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes in some dark corner of the theater, John Dale Smith leads a band of six musical bedfellows in producing the foundational rich compositions of Stephen Schwartz. Dancing is excellently choreographed by Amanda Tollstam. Costumes of each member of the band of players are unique and fetching. Eric Chatfield’s set is expansive, including aerial silks with choreography by Deb Keller.

Is there a clear resolution for the yearnings of Pippin, a symbol of all of us in our youth, to leave his mark upon the world? Perhaps it’s that we all must make our choices and be content with what we have done with our lives.

"Pippin" (the musical)

 Sept. 5-7

Thurs. 7-9:30 p.m.

Fri-Sat 8-10:30 p.m.

$22-26 General, $14 Children

Riverwalk Theatre

228 Museum Drive, Lansing,

riverwalktheatre.com/box-office.html

(517) 482-5700

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