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THEATER REVIEW: “Pippin” is a powerhouse at Diversionary Theatre

It’s been said that we find out what we want by first discovering what we don’t want.

That certainly seems to be the case for Pippin, the fictionalized son of the fictionalized founder of the Carolingian Empire Charlemagne in Stephen Schwartz’s ’70s-era musical “Pippin,” playing through Oct. 14 at Diversionary Theatre.

James Vasquez directs and choreographs a top-drawer cast in this seldom-performed piece that ran nearly five years on Broadway back in the day but hasn’t returned since.

The story is narrated (if that’s quite the word) and Pippin (Louis Pardo) manipulated (that is the right term) by Leading Player (Courtney Corey), heading a troupe of actors telling the story.

Corey and Pardo have powerhouse voices and the kind of delivery that makes the most of a Schwartz score that is easy to listen to but only occasionally memorable.

As protagonist, Pippin leaves something to be desired. He’s not only whiny but also a bit of a blank slate in terms of motivation, ambition, conviction, even dreams. So he tries things on for size, beginning with soldiering (hoping to win his emotionally distant father Charles’ approval) and hedonism (thanks to Grandma Berthe’s suggestion that “it’s time to start living” in the song “No Time At All,” winningly sung by Wendy Maples).

Still feeling “empty and vacant,” he essays revolutionary fervor, vowing to overthrow his tyrannical father – feeding right into the plans of stepmom Fastrada (a hilarious Luke Jacobs in drag) to get rid of King Charles (Andy Collins) so her son Lewis (Tony Houck) can accede to the crown.

As eldest son, Pippin becomes king, but he soon runs from absolute power too, hiding out for a while with Catherine (Megan Carmitchel), a pretty young widow with a lovely voice and a young son named Theo (Hunter Schwarz).

After a while, it’s difficult to care what Pippin ends up doing. Fortunately, fine voices and production values win the day: Vasquez aces both direction and the sprightly choreography, and acting, singing and technical crews keep this ’70s self-discovery saga from bogging down to a crawl.

Kudos to the entire cast, excellent all around, and to Charlie Reuter’s scaled-back but absolutely right-sounding onstage three-man combo.

You’ll know when you enter the theater that this is a modern rendering by Sean Fanning’s remarkable set design covering the proscenium and some of the theater’s walls as well as the stage with techno-litter, seven TV screens and other detritus of modern life. Fanning describes it as an art installation.

Shirley Pierson’s costumes, too, give the look of a rock concert, with lots of black and leather, especially for Leading Player. Luke Olson’s lighting and Kevin Anthenill’s projections add to the atmosphere.

If you’ve never seen “Pippin,” this is as fine a production as you are likely to see. And if you have – well, this one is different.

The details

“Pippin” plays through Oct. 14 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd.

Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm

For tickets, call (619) 220-0097 or visit ¬HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.