Playwright Roger O. Hirson ( book ), Stephen Schwartz ( music and lyrics )
At Mercury Theater Chicago, Venus Cabaret, 3745 N. Southport Ave. Tickets 773-325-1700 or MercuryTheaterChicagocom; $60-$65. Runs through: Nov. 18
If you're going to set Pippin in a cabaretone named for the goddess of love, no less—why not give it the full-on Kit Kat Klub treatment?
L. Walter Stearns' staging at the Mercury's delightfully cozy Venus Cabaret couldn't be more different than the circus-spectacle version staged by Diana Paulus, seen here on the national tour in 2015. But it's breathtaking in its own right, and filled with an ensemble that brings in a potent blend of smarts, sexiness and a soupcon of sadness. Toss in Rachel Boylan's slinky-shiny lingerie costumes ( complete with Bob Fosse-esque hands sewn over various body parts ), and the parallels to Cabaret are irresistible.
First produced in 1972, as the Age of Aquarius was waking up to a Nixon hangover, Pippin also has thematic similarities to Cabaret. What do you do with your ideals and dreams in a world in thrall to war and repression? Join the militant masses? Try to reform from within? Lose yourself in sybaritic excesses? Or just run away to the countryside and hope for domestic bliss? We even have a master of ceremonies, er, Leading Player, as our tour guide.
Donterrio Johnson's take on the role brings jazz-hipster cool blended with Mephistophelean menace. Little wonder that Koray Tarhan's Pippin, though book-smart and filled with noble intentions, falls under the sway of Johnson's band of merry pranksters and seducers as he stumbles from battlefield to bedroom in the world of Frankish politics dominated by his father, Charles, a.k.a. Charlemagne ( Don Forston ).
Tarhan has a touch of Candide about him as well. He's a young man who wants very much to find meaning in life, but has no idea how to do that. When briefly given power, he screws it up royally. It's not until he meets the widow Catherine ( played by Nicole Arnold with forthright charm ) and her son, Theo ( the adorable Gabriel Robert ) that he gets a glimpse of how to put down roots.
The entire cast delights and enthralls, using small but potent moments of audience interaction to draw us in. During Iris Lieberman's show-stopping turn as Pippin's Grandmother Berthe in No Time At All the space turns momentarily into a tiki bar, with the cast handing out fruity ( nonalcoholic ) drinks to the audience. ( G "Max" Maxin IV's videography on four screens neatly suggests the changes in scenery. ) Sawyer Smith as Pippin's scheming stepmother, Fastrada, dominates Brenda Didier's taut choreography with their legs-for-days physique and snappy sass. Adam Fane as Lewis, Fastrada's son, nails it as a narcissistic idiot who fails upward at life. ( Sound familiar? )
The three-piece band under Andrew Milliken's direction brings out all the timbre and resonance in Schwartz's ingratiating score in the small space. Stearns' Pippin feels extra-relevant as we figure out how to make it through the darkness and turmoil of our times with our ideals intact.