The subtitle for director Kevin Bellie's production of "Pippin" at Circle Theatre promises "A Bollywood Spectacular." Before the show debuted, there was an uproar in theater blogs about the fact that a mostly white cast would be performing this conceptual fillip on Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson's 1972 coming-of-age musical.
Bellie's casting choices come at an inopportune time. Many Asian artists were already outraged that Gregory Doran, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, cast primarily Caucasian actors in his just-opened production of "The Orphan of Zhao," a classic often referred to as "the Chinese 'Hamlet.'"
Granted, "Pippin" is hardly a show that cries out for ethnic specificity. Schwartz and Hirson took the bare bones of the little-known 8th-century history of Charlemagne's eldest son and transposed it for the waning days of the Age of Aquarius. There probably weren't too many Frankish descendants protesting that initial production.
But it's undeniably disconcerting to see a lot of white actors in Indian garb as they deliver their version of Bollywood dance moves. There is a degree of cultural misappropriation at work, for sure. (Just why are they going to war to defend Christianity?) The larger problem, however, is that the self-conscious concept gums up the works for what is already a tricky piece to pull off.
Pippin (Neil Stratman) is an innocent young scholar in the "Candide" mode who yearns to find the real joy and purpose of his life.
Through war, orgies, patricide and a domestic interlude with a comely widow and her precocious son, Pippin finally learns, like Dorothy, to seek contentment close to home, while a band of "players" tries to lead him like a moth to self-immolation.
There are gorgeous songs in the score, but as rendered by music director Ryan Brewster, they feel a bit thin in execution, despite the interstitial addition of riffs redolent of Bollywood soundtracks.
The band of players never quite coheres into the sinuous group of mesmerists the story demands, as Pippin falls under their spell and pursues one fool's errand after another.
On the plus side, Christopher Logan as the Leading Player has enough dangerous charisma to burn a hole in the back wall of the auditorium. Khaki Pixley as the widow Catherine brings welcome vulnerability to a show that has always had its chilly side.
Jennifer Bludgen's Fastrada, Pippin's scheming stepmother, belts the heck out of "Spread a Little Sunshine," and Patti Roeder as Berthe, the randy grandma, has palpable fun (along with her bevy of beautiful boys) with "No Time at All."
This is Bellie's last show as artistic director for Circle, and he's certainly delivered loads of fine productions over the years. "Pippin" isn't a terrible swan song for him, but one wonders how much better it would have been without the unnecessary importation of a style that fails to enhance the original material.
When: Through Dec. 23
Where: Circle Theatre, 1010 Madison St., Oak Park
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes