Play:    Pippin

Group:    Stray Dog Theatre

Venue:    Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue

Dates:    October 30,31, November 1,6,7,8

Tickets:    $18 and $20; contact 314-865-1995

Story:    What do you do if you’re the first-born son of the king of the Frankish empire, and the 8th-century world is pretty much at your favored-status fingertips?  If you’re Pippin the Hunchback, you’re on a serious quest to find meaning in your life, which you consider to be “extraordinary.”  But how will your powerful and ruthless dad react to that?  Or your earthy grandmother, who has been exiled to the country by her lusty and ambitious stepdaughter, your stepmother?  Or your dimwitted but large-muscled stepbrother?  Or the landed gentry or peasants or anyone else?

That’s the crux of the situation in Pippin, the whimsical romp of a musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Robert Hirson.  Getting a handle on the Holy Roman Empire is one thing, but Pippin has truly grand designs on finding his place in life, and the result is a fun-filled evening of stylish music and merry entertainment.  The 1972 musical, with original direction by Bob Fosse, ran for more than 1,700 performances on Broadway, showcasing Fosse’s signature choreography.

Highlights:    Stray Dog Theatre artistic director Gary Bell has chosen wisely for Stray Dog’s initial musical at its new venue.  Bell’s direction of this Pippin is smart, stylish and sassy, all of which makes for a rousing good evening of entertainment.  Additionally, on-stage pianist David Horstman provides expert musical support with his own grand theatrics across the ivories that delightfully complement the players.

    JT Ricroft’s choreography is playful and amusing and nicely executed by the performers, while Tyler Duenow’s lighting adds a festive touch to the proceedings.  Additionally, the bright, provocative costumes by designer Cherol Daniels contribute handsomely to the carnival atmosphere represented by the ragtag assemblage of sundry bits and pieces that adorn the looming set cleverly conceived by Jay Hall and Bell over a trio of looming scaffolds.

Other Info:    One needs a solid performance in this title role to be truly successful, and Jeffrey Wright is the right guy for the part.  As in New Line Theatre’s delightful rendition of High Fidelity this summer, Wright brings a sweet, amiable, Everyman nature to the focal role.  In fine Bob Newhart style, he quietly steps back and allows his supporting cast to make the most of their colorful parts.

    Bell keeps the show moving smoothly in its own classy rhythm, although the venue’s acoustics problems offer jarring reminders of the musical imperfections of the performance space.  There are several excellent numbers, including Laura Kyro’s enjoyable romp as the grandmother advising Pippin about life’s physical joys on No Time at All, and the lively, opening ensemble number, Magic to Do.  Jeffrey Pruett convincingly brings the nasty cynicism to the key role of the Leading Player, while Leslie Sikes, albeit a bit young for the part, is splendid as the evil stepmother Fastrada, not beyond sexually teasing her own son, Lewis, here played in amusing thick-headed fashion by Tyler Vickers.

    Julie Venegoni displays an excellent voice as the lovely widow Catherine, Pippin’s eventual love interest, on Kind of Woman, and some spot-on acting confronting the Leading Player, and Chuck Lavazzi takes utmost advantage of his royal bearings, camping it up as the virile Charlemagne.  Bell also uses a Greek chorus of sorts, a quartet of sexy women who surround Pippin, portrayed by Melissa Flynn, Julie Nagy, Michelle Sauer and Natasha Toro, while young Evan Robinson shows his own promising musical ability as Catherine’s son, Theo.

    Interestingly, the show’s conclusion now offers a much more prescient and disturbing look at our society than Schwartz and Hirson could have envisioned 35 years ago, reaffirming my own belief that “reality TV” is bad stuff, indeed.

Rating:    A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.