Electrifying musical ‘Pippin’ on stage at freeFall Theatre

Kellie Rhianne portraying the “Leading Player,” a role brought to life by Ben Vereen on Broadway.

By J.A. Jones, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – Looking for a night of vibrant vocals, spunky choreography and gorgeous music? freeFall Theatre’s production of “Pippin,” playing now at 6099 Central Ave., will feed your need with a show that dazzles your senses.

“Pippin” brings powerhouse talent, high-octane performances and equally impressive musical direction and choreography to the theatre’s intimate space. With snarky humor and ingenious direction that tunes this classic to our present times, this production reminds us why “Pippin” remains a classic example of American theatre.

A fictional tale with some historical references, the musical follows “everyman” Pippin as he journeys from an impetuous, naive student to serving in the army of his father, King Charlemagne. When that fails, we follow him as he looks for meaning through stylized sexual escapades, stints as an artist and finally working on the estate of a widow with a young son.

As Pippin is looking to find his “purpose” he exemplifies every human’s quest to find their place in the world – while trying to outrun daily living’s most mundane aspects. His story is narrated by the “Leading Player” – who, along with the production’s handful of minstrels, prods, teases and attempts to sway Pippin towards a catastrophic end.

Artistic Director Eric Davis’ dynamic, in-your-face direction and choreography heightens Stephen Schwartz’s brilliant lyrics and score. Musical director Michael Raabe manages concert-hall quality accompaniment via a passionate and stirring team of musicians.

While the original Broadway version of “Pippin” starred the otherworldly Ben Vereen in the play’s pivotal role, “Leading Player” (Vereen won a Tony for his performance), director/choreographer Eric Davis wisely maintained the role’s funkiness but went for a femme version in casting the musical’s ringleader.

Enter Kellie Rhianne – whose brilliant turn in the role is kind of like being doused with a cool shower after a day in Florida’s sun: you don’t want it – or her performance – to end.

The role is demanding, to say the least, requiring a performer who can dance, sing and beguile both Pippin and the audience, delivering a sly and sexy “devil’s advocate”/foil to the protagonist. Rhianne is pitch-perfect, exuding mastery as she struts throughout scenes, providing powerhouse vocals with incredible chops.

The production’s Pippin is also more than fit for his task. Daniel J. Maldonado is effervescent in the role; both a strong singer and a physically adept performer, he bolts, tumbles and climbs through the movable set pieces with aplomb.

The rest of the cast is exceptional, playing both supporting characters and fleshing out the chorus of minstrels. Hannah Benitez is endearing as his love interest, widow Catherine while Alison Burns is wickedly playful as Pippin’s Lady Macbethian-stepmother. Emmanuel Carrero and Will Garrabrant garner well-deserved chuckles as Pippin’s half-brother Lewis and Catherine’s son Theo.

Especially enjoyable is Matthew McGee as both King Charlemagne and Pippin’s grandmother Berthe. Not only does McGee pull off vocal acrobatics that delivers convincingly different styles for the two characters, but in full drag, he is almost unrecognizable as he transitions from the role of Charlemagne into Charlemagne’s mother.

It warrants saying that while productions of “Pippin” are normally presented with as many as 30 cast members, you don’t miss any of them thanks to the maximum-voltage performance of this ensemble.

Don’t miss this five-star production of a gem of American theater! “Pippin” plays Wednesday through Sunday until Aug. 11 at freeFall Theatre, 6099 Central Ave., St. Petersburg.  Call (727) 498-5205 or visit www.freefalltheatre.com.

To reach J.A. Jones, email jjones@theweeklychallenger.com

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