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‘Pippin’ takes on new dimensions in Mercury Theater’s cabaret setting

The cast of "Pippin" at Mercury Theater Chicago. | Brett Beiner

The cast of "Pippin" at Mercury Theater Chicago — Donterrio Johnson (from left), Iris Lieberman, Sawyer Smith, Kayla Boye, Koray Tarhan, Nicole Armold, Adam Fane, Michael Rawls and Don Forston. | Brett Beiner

Thematically, the 1972 musical “Pippin” is not unlike “Waiting for Godot.” Both Samuel Beckett’s stark classic and Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics) and Roger O. Hirson’s (book) musical ruminate on whether life is pointless and meaning is possible. But where “Godot” is austere, “Pippin” is a circus of colored lights, fanciful costumes, steamy dances and the occasional backflip. Or so it is in the Mercury Theater Chicago’s winning production about the wandering son of King Charlemagne. If the spectacle and free empanadas distract you from the musical’s often dark take on life, war and government, mission accomplished. That’s precisely the purpose of bread and circuses.

When: Through Dec. 16
Where: Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 N. Southport
Tickets: $60-$65 (includes appetizers and dessert)
Info: MercuryTheaterChicago.com

Directed by L. Walter Stearns with music direction by Eugene Dizon, “Pippin” begins with the Leading Player (Donterrio Johnson) luring Pippin (Koray Tarhan) and the audience into the story. The staging unfolds in the theater’s  cabaret space, the actors using the stage and the tight quarters surrounding cocktail tables where the audience is seated for the performance. The result is a hyper-intimate exploration of larger-than-life topics. Bolstered by Brenda Didier’s Bob Fosse-inspired choreography, “Pippin” is defined throughout by Johnson’s sinewy seducer-in-chief. He’s like a snake in the garden, wearing a sense of corruption and danger like a malevolent halo. With the Leading Player as a tour guide, the kingdom of Charlemagne’s a place of menace and wonder.

Tarhan is an apt Everyman. He’s barely noticeable at first — just some idiot who comes in late and forgets to silence his cell phone. He transforms into a leading man — albeit a conflicted one — in short order. There’s a purity and an earnestness to Tarhan’s voice that suits the role, especially when he unleashes the gorgeously soaring money notes in “Corner of the Sky.” Vocals aside, it’s clear that Pippin is no hero. His noble (and egocentric) intentions aren’t matched by impact. When Pippin realizes that (what kids today call) “adulting” is harder than he ever dreamed, he simply walks away from his responsibilities. He’s a social justice warrior, until it’s time to stop telling people what to do and actually start doing something for them. It takes him a good while before realizing that extraordinary things and meaningful things aren’t the one and the same. And, that compromise can be a prerequisite of survival as much as a cause for condemnation.

Stearn’s supporting cast is wonderful. As King Charlemagne, Don Forston isn’t nearly as dumb as he looks. There’s guile and mettle under that blowhard demeanor, along with a touch of evil.  As Pippin’s sexually manipulative stepmother Fastrada, Sawyer Smith is serving up Janet Leigh, Lauren Hutton and Linda Evangelista, combined with the come-hither singing voice of Marilyn Monroe and the legs of the center-of-the-line Rockette from Planet Tall Person, which bears mentioning because Didier’s slinky, energetic choreography looks fabulous on Smith.

As Fastrada’s meatheaded son Lewis, Adam Fane is precisely what the role demands: Buff, beautiful, and dumber than a paper sack of wet hen’s teeth. Nicole Armold layers steel and sweetness as Pippin’s on-again-off-again love interest, Catherine. And as Pippin’s wise, saucy grandmother, Iris Lieberman brings down the house in “Just No Time at All,” a gleeful ode to the joy of living (and sex). Finally, there’s Catherine’s son Theo, played with endearing innocence (until the final, haunting moment of the show) by Gabriel Robert.

Donterrio Johnson (top) and Koray Tarhan in a scene from “Pippin” at Mercury Theater Chicago. | Brett Beiner

The design elements work well, especially Rachel Boylan’s cabaret-appropriate ballerinas-in-an-S&M-dungeon costumes. Many of her looks have Fosse-reminiscent jazz hands sewn right into them. Ghostly white against an array of black underwear-as-outerwear, they intensify the sexual heat of Didier’s choreography, especially when Pippin goes full-on “Caligula” in his pursuit of meaning via indiscriminate hookups. Telling details enhance the subtext: In one scene, Boylan outfits the cast in colored sunglasses, while Didier lines them up like a human Pride flag. The effect is subtle but wonderful.

In lieu of a set (there’s nothing on that tiny stage but several large trunks and the occasional chair), Max Maxin IV’s video design competently takes the audience to battle, to bed and into the green fields of the kingdom.

Dizon’s three-person orchestra — pocketed in a corner of the stage — sounds far larger, and makes Schwartz’s magnificent score soar.

Now 46-years-old, “Pippin” has yet to show its agenda, at least at the Mercury. Johnson’s alluring call for the audience to “join us” bears heeding.

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.