KPBS AIRDATE: October 26, 1994 >
Two young men, searching for a little meaning in their lives. One is a sort of ’60s Everyman. The other is the son of an 8th century monarch. One makes a musical journey; the other, a satirical one. Both end up in monumental compromise.
The plays are “Pippin” and “Muzeeka.” The writers, respectively, are Stephen Schwartz and John Guare. Both have done better work.
Schwartz is best known for “Godspell,” his 1971 musical retelling of the Gospel according to Matthew. “Pippin” was actually written years before it appeared on Broadway in 1972, put together when Schwartz was still a student at Carnegie Tech, but it wasn’t till his success with “Godspell” that a big-time producer was willing to take a chance on him. Without Bob Fosse’s razzle-dazzle direction and choreography, it’s a pretty weak show, with no real show-stopping songs and no drop-dead lyrics.
The story of Charlemagne’s son is engrossing, but Schwartz didn’t mine its riches. Pippin, a kind of Candide searching for truth and meaning in his life, first seeks glory as a warrior, then as a lover, and finally as a leader of social causes. After failing at all three, he settles down to middle class domesticity.
This is just the kind of musical the Lamb’s Players love: a small ensemble piece that can ride on energy without requiring too much glitz. That worked spectacularly with “Godspell,” where the rag-tag, theater-in-a-trunk effect suited their skills perfectly.
But “Pippin” is more of a magic show, with a charismatic centerpiece and two hypnotic, irresistible sidekicks. Deborah Gilmore Smyth gets to strut her music and dancing stuff, but there is no magic here. The songs, the moves, her energy — all get repetitive and, after awhile, no matter how hard everyone is trying, it’s somehow soporific. Rick Meads is a pleasant Pippin, but he and his plight don’t entrance us in the slightest. David Heath is a regal king, and Vanda Eggington does a cute, but not hilarious job on the only really clever number, “No Time At All.” Cheerful and colorful, but not sufficiently engaging or seductive to carry an already shaky show.
Meanwhile, downtown at the Fritz Theater , Jack Argue is making his journey in “Muzeeka,” a play that’s so ’60s it hurts. This 1967 black comedy has all the naked abandonment of the summer of love, and all the bald-faced disillusionment that followed after.
Argue is enamored of the Etruscans, an ancient people who passionately danced their lives away, until, like the flower children of this century, they disappeared forever.
Jack goes to work at the Muzeeka Corporation of America , creator and purveyor of the mind-numbing elevator ear-candy, Muzak. His dream is to banish the Bland by insidiously infiltrating the world with the music of Etruscans — rich, sensual, enlivening — to awaken the country to its own joyful sexuality.
While his wife is in labor, Jack calls on a lovechild whose number he got off a bathroom wall. He goes off to Vietnam , where each company is under contract to the networks for real and re-enacted TV war coverage. Not by design, but not unlike Pippin, he settles into mediocrity and oblivion.
Duane Daniels’ direction is spare but intriguing, maintaining a flow despite the play’s choppy, episodic structure. David Kornbluth is an ideally angst-ridden Jack, an unenviable guy who sort of tries and sort of fails. The show’s other star is Daniel Morris’ evocative Etruscan backdrop.
Both these coming-of-age plays tend to get preachy. Both could do with more subtlety. But both are very much a product of their times.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.