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Spirits Running Free 

by Michael Bowen & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & o many musicals offer entertainment and escape, unadulterated by any pesky thoughts about psychology or, God forbid, political satire. Pippin isn't that kind of musical. Oh, you'll leave humming some tunes -- but you'll also be asking yourself questions, wondering about the nature of happiness, confronting your own life.


With a slew of highlights -- Stephen Schwartz's music and lyrics, Roger Welch's polished and inventive direction, Steve Booth's exuberant questing in the title role, Michael Wasileski's Fosse-style choreography and any number of wonderful supporting bits -- Coeur d'Alene Summer Theater is now offering a show that ventures past mere escapism into songs and debates that will actually matter to you for days and weeks later. It closes July 30, so make your plans for Pippin now -- because this is one of Coeur d'Alene's finest shows in years.


Pippin asks the Big Enchilada questions: What is a well-spent life? What is happiness? Pippin himself -- na & iuml;ve, full of wonder and longing -- wants his life "to be more than just long." Set on a quest, he predictably rejects various career paths: soldier, politician, artist, playboy. But when it comes to the wife and the house with the white picket fence, answers start to tumble in unexpectedly. In Pippin, people don't just settle down and live happily ever after. It's a fable -- not intended to be realistic, not rooted in any particular time. Pippin is about as medieval as Hamlet is Danish.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & B & lt;/span & ut themes are only as engaging as the performances make them, and Welch has coached a lot of exceptional ones out of his cast. In the title role, Steve Booth has the boyish exuberance and arm-flailing energy you'd expect of a na & iuml;f chasing after his dreams. He sells "Corner of the Sky" as a pop anthem, belting the high notes in a way that compels listeners to share his character's hunger for a better life. (In reprising snippets of the song, Booth finds its poignancy.)


Booth -- an Idaho native fresh from the Las Vegas production of the Tony-winning Avenue Q -- isn't afraid to show us that the young prince, while likeable, is also silly, violent, wrong-headed and incompetent. Booth's winning and likeable performance is the heart and soul of this show.


And he gets great support. There's Jack Bannon as his father the king, rattling off battle orders, fending off loved ones with a cell phone and throwing a few profanities around even as he makes fun of himself. Two additional delights arrive in throwaway scenes that hang like threads from the plot: Ellen Travolta as Berthe, Pippin's grandmother, and Charissa Bertels as Fastrada, his scheming stepmother.


When Pippin comes calling on Grandma for advice, she responds with the show-stopping "No Time at All." It's a catchy little carpe diem ditty that works even in a slightly hokey audience sing-along format because Travolta projects her own joie de vivre right out past the footlights. As for Bertels, ambitious for her character's son, she controls the king with sexuality and Pippin with her wiles. It's like watching a dance hall version of Lady Macbeth: funny and enjoyable, but a little dangerous too.


Blessed with a talented ensemble, Welch spreads Ben Vereen's Leading Player part among three actors. Max Kumangai-McGee's gender-bending nonconformity in the opening number, "Magic To Do," is a little exciting, a little sinister -- just what seekers of the good life are up against. Ross Cornell partners Booth with a dancing automaton in "On the Right Track" -- should they rebel or conform?


Pippin repeatedly forges satire by presenting idyllic situations and lyrics, then undercutting them with degraded contexts. Take the hymn to conquest, "Glory": Middle East military campaigns sound grand in theory, but take on a different hues when the corpses and body parts appear. (In 1972, the commentary took dead aim at the Vietnam War. Funny how we've got another unpopular war on our hands now.) Welch's slide show of warfare's stupidity and waste through the centuries -- along with Hilary Winkworth's anachronistic costumes (doughboys fighting alongside Vikings and conquistadors) -- lays righteous anti-war anger right at the feet of a red-state audience. They seemed to agree that war is horrible, but ... aren't Roger Hirson (who wrote the book) and Schwartz getting a little personal here?


Satire's discomforting; it's more pleasant when fingers are pointing at the other guy. Good satire -- tingles-up-the-spine satire, which Welch creates again and again in this production -- is something we respect but don't love. It's too busy making us feel bad about ourselves.


The satiric contexts pile up. "Morning Glow" is set up as a Reagan-style vision of political regeneration, except that ugly political scheming and violence is on view. "With You" counterpoints passion with promiscuity; "Love Song" suggests that marriage is more perseverance than romance.


Welch directs to maximize the contrasts, as if to say, "Here's what we say we believe in; here's what we do instead." His version of Pippin reflects the satiric bent of some of the best '70s musicals and movies: communal anthems, sung from despair but yearning for a virtuous life (Godspell); the Fosse "amoeba," all angular limbs and erotic thrusts, along with the strong sense that fame and social justice are at odds (Chicago); our better impulses made to appear decadent and yet alluring (Cabaret); the false blend of resistance against oppression with violence and sex (A Clockwork Orange).





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he ending Welch has chosen -- even after the Finale that's not a finale -- is stunning. Turns out our best desires are achievable, after a manner. But they have their dark sides too. There's a reason this ensemble has a goth and hungry look.


By the end of CdA's Pippin, you won't be looking at your significant other in quite the same way, and you'll be contemplating what you want to do with the rest of your life. For a tale that's supposedly simplistic and dated, that' s not a bad night's work.

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