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Theater Review: Magic is made with ‘Pippin’ at Pennsylvania Playhouse

The romantic musical comedy “Pippin” returns us to the land of make-believe: the 1970s when hair was long, time was short and dancing in the streets was all the rage.

“Pippin” is a musical theater slice-of-time. It’s a throwback to the hippie ethos of the “be-in,” of “the happening” and of the Age of Aquarius, all long gone for better or worse.

“Pippin” continues through Aug. 7, Pennsylvania Playhouse, Bethlehem. The July 24 performance was seen for this review.

“Pippin” is in the Broadway tradition of “Hair” (1968), “Jesus Christ Superstar” (1971) and “Godspell” (1971), the latter with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, who wrote the music and lyrics for “Pippin” (1973).

Schwartz would go on to collaborate with composer Alan Menken on Walt Disney Motion Pictures Studios animation feature films, including “Pocahontas” (1995) and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1996) and write the music and lyrics for Broadway’s “Wicked” (2003).

The world of childhood naiveté and not letting it go as an adult is a hallmark of Schwartz’s work and “Pippin” is no exception. Roger O. Hirson wrote the book for “Pippin.”

“Pippin” has the sense of a Pirandellian quest, but instead of “Six Characters in Search of An Author” (1921), it’s more like “A Cast in Search of a Play.”

With “Pippin,” there’s a deconstructionist element that begs the question as to whether the theater-goer has seen a play or eavesdropped on a lead character being psychoanalyzed, albeit not on an office couch, but on a theater stage - in front of an audience.

Fortunately, “Pippin” has those songs by Schwartz, plus choreography based on that of Bob Fosse, who directed the original Broadway production.

Pippin (Crede Cooper) is a young man on a spiritual quest who is torn between the obligations of a kingdom headed by his father Charlemagne (Mark Boyer) and those advising him to go his own way.

Among the advisers are Fastrada (Beth Sucro), Pippin’s stepmother; Berthe (Trish Kane Steele), Pippin’s grandmother; Catherine (Alexandria Austin), a widow farm woman, and her son, Theo (Cashton Zisa Morrow); Lewis (Alex Kleinschmidt), Pippin’s brother, and most notably, Leading Player (CaSandra Kay Danubio), for whom the show must go on.

And so the show begins with “Magic to Do,” a bravura opening number sung and danced by Danubio (Leading Player) accompanied by the Ensemble, which is terrific throughout the production (Griffin Boyle, Olivia Byrne, Ericka Csencsits, Jenny Delorimier, Samantha Ferrante, Nik Georgievski, Whitney Madill, Bryanna Pye and Joshua Schwirtz).

Danubio is in fine voice and steps out and sells it in “Glory” with the Ensemble, “Simple Joys,” and “On the Right Track” with Cooper (Pippin).

Additionally, Danubio maintains a sassy authoritative edge, not unlike The Emcee in “Cabaret” (1966). Danubio’s characterization of a malevolent manipulator provides the production an underlying power.

In contrast, Cooper (Pippin) is all light and joy, a blank slate on whom life’s experiences and others’ personalities are imprinted. Cooper gives soaring renditions of “Corner of the Sky,” “With You” and “Morning Glow,” the latter with the Ensemble, and “Love Song,” with Austin (Catherine).

Austin has a splendid voice, evident in “There He Was,” “Kind of Woman” with the Ensemble, and in the show’s most amusing number, “Prayer for a Duck,” with Cooper (Pippin) and Morrow (Theo). Morrow steals every scene he’s in, especially the show’s closer, “Theo’s Corner.”

Notable in comedic and moving spotlight numbers are Trish Kane Steele (Berthe) and the Ensemble in “No Time at All” and Beth Sucro (Fastrada) and the Ensemble in “Spread a Little Sunshine.”

Clair M. Freeman directs the Playhouse’s “Pippin” with a reverence for the original show, while infusing the production with a contemporary perspective. Assistant Director is John Corl.

Mackenzie Lewis choreographs the dancers with an enthusiasm and looseness that is winning.

Music director Rebecca Pieper brings out great choral work in the Ensemble.

Technical Director and Set Designer Brett Oliveiria creates an effective riser with flanking ramps for the stage.

Costume Designer Todd Burkel brings a bit of Vegas flash to the proceedings.

When all is said and done in Pippin’s search, which is akin to portions of The Bible’s “Book of Ecclesiastes,” he throws it all away for the status quo, much to the chagrin of the Leading Player and her peeps. Sometimes, the show must not go on.

With “Pippin,” we discover the magic is not something “to do,” but rather is in the reality that is and the love within, no matter the decade or epoch.

“Pippin,” 7:30 p.m. July 29, 30, Aug. 5, 6; 6 p.m. July 31, Aug. 7, Pennsylvania Playhouse, Illicks Mill Road, between Route 512 and Schoenersville Road, Bethlehem. Tickets: http://www.paplayhouse.org ; 610-865-6665

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO CaSandra Kay Danubio (Leading Player), right, “Pippin,” Pennsylvania Playhouse.