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Review: UMD’s musical ‘Pippin’ lacks magic

To be sure, the UMD cast looked like they were having fun, and the audience, which included mostly students, was vocal in their responses to their fellow students onstage.

DNT review
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UMD Theatre Department’s opening night of the musical “Pippin” did not meet the level of performance excellence of many of their past musicals. While it did have some bright spots, on the whole, it was a lackluster evening of theater.

Telling the medieval tale of King Charlemagne and his eldest son Pepin (Pippin), the musical is typically done with its original 1970’s vibe that the music from composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz (of “Wicked” fame) helps to dictate.

Beginning with the show’s opening number, “Magic to Do,” the tone for an evening of theatrical razzle-dazzle should be set. From the start, sadly, there was very little sparkling spectacle happening on the UMD stage.

Choreographer and director Bob Fosse’s groundbreaking “concept” musicals, beginning with “Pippin” in 1973, and followed by “Cabaret” and “Chicago,” established an entirely new way of looking at musical storytelling and dance.

These shows with their darker and even sinister tones broke from the feel-good, happy, traditional musicals of stage and screen of the '40s and '50s.

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According to guest director Dennis F. Johnson’s program note, UMD’s show overlays a classic 1940 and '50s Hollywood MGM movie musical style. This odd choice ended up creating a mishmash of costuming and staging, and more importantly, clouded a clear vision of the intent of the show.

While it isn’t, of course, necessary to duplicate Fosse’s iconic style down to the last hip gyration and use of jazz hands, it is still important that the show have a cohesive style which acknowledges his changing the face of musical theater forever. On that essential point, UMD’s show misses the mark.

Even though it is not musical “comedy” in the traditional sense, the show does have some genuinely funny moments. The UMD cast failed to bring out the humor enough in line readings, expressions and body language to land many of the “jokes.”

The UMD cast best succeeded with a few of the show’s quiet ballads such as Pippin (Nick Wright) and Catherine (Emily Bolles) singing ”Love Song” and Bolles’s lovely rendition of “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man.” A wonderful vocal moment came at the very end of the show with Theo (Zsofi Eastvold) doing a short reprise of “Corner of the Sky.”

The biggest sparks of energy and fun came from Laura Carlson in her role as the “leading player.” While she, at times, lacked some of the more menacing side that the role requires, the stage came to life when she helped to tell the story and kept the pacing moving. She also had some powerful vocal moments that showcased some of Schwartz’s music.

To be sure, the UMD cast looked like they were having fun, and the audience, which included mostly students, was vocal in their responses to their fellow students onstage.

Like every other college theater program, UMD is trying to come back after a two-year COVID gap of missing out on some of their students’ essential training and live performance. Thankfully, students are again attending in-person classes and performing onstage doing what they are being trained to do.

I look forward to next season, when I anticipate more of UMD’s musical magic will be uniformly showcased again.

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If You “Go”

What: “Pippin” musical from the UMD Theatre Department
Where: UMD’s Marshall Performing Arts Center
When: April 14-16 and 20-23 at 7:30 p.m. and April 24 at 2 p.m.
Tickets/Information: Call 218-726-8561 or go online at: tickets.umn.edu/UMDCAHSS
$25 for adults, $20 for seniors/UMD faculty/staff/veterans, $10 for students and $10 for UMD students

Sheryl Jensen is a former teacher, magazine editor and director. She reviews performances for the Duluth News Tribune.

Sheryl Jensen is a former teacher, magazine editor and director. She reviews performances for the Duluth News Tribune.
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