Plenty of magic in Vanguard Theater Company’s production of ‘Pippin’

pippin review nj


“Pippin” cast members include (front row, from left) Jared Mazeika, Lisa Cortney, Lawrence Dandridge and Janice Lynn.

The character Pippin is, indeed, the protagonist of the musical “Pippin.” But this part is not the musical’s plum role. That would be Leading Player, the play’s mysterious, at times puppetmaster-like narrator. It’s the role for which Ben Vereen won the Tony Award for Best Leading Actor in a Musical in the original Broadway production, in the ’70s, and for which Patina Miller won the Best Leading Actress in a Musical Tony, in the 2013-15 Broadway revival.

I was glad to hear that Lawrence Dandridge would play it in the “Pippin” production that The Vanguard Theater Company is currently presenting at The Vanguard Theater in Montclair. He was a showstopper in “Passing Strange” at The Vanguard Theater last year. And he is excellent in this role: larger than life, a bit sinister, and in constant, elegant motion. This role demands a commanding presence, and Dandridge has it.


Quincy Hampton in “Pippin.”

“Pippin” — written by Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics) and Roger O. Hirson (book) and set in a surreal version of Medieval Europe, with the fourth wall broken more and more frequently as the play nears its surprising but also heart-warming ending — is one of my favorite musicals. And this production represents a great opportunity to see it in an intimate setting.

As the show’s opening song proclaims, “We’ve got magic to do,” and director Janeece Freeman Clark (who is also The Vanguard Theater Company’s artistic director) takes this idea and runs with it, filling the show with circus stunts (juggling, fire-breathing, unicycling, etc.), largely courtesy of cast member Patrick Swailes Caldwell, and aerial tricks by pole dancers Gina Alm and Cameron Boucher-Khan and silks specialist Sarah Takash.

(Caldwell actually does card tricks and other amusements for audience members before the show starts, as well, and Alm and Boucher-Khan do some pole routines.)

Leading Player may be the musical’s most important role, but there are lots of other good ones here, and Freeman Clark has assembled a very talented cast. Quincy Hampton projects wholesome, youthful earnestness as the title character, a son of King Charlemagne and heir to throne, who is searching for some meaning in his life. Janice Lynn brings the requisite feistiness to the role of his advice-dispensing, life-affirming grandmother. Also excellent was Lisa Cortney as Pippin’s dazzlingly glamorous, conniving mother Fastrada; Jared Mazeika as her doltish son (and Pippin’s half-brother), Lewis; and Dwayne Clark as the dauntingly regal but also somewhat goofy Charlemagne.

Brittany Smithson, as Pippin’s main love interest Catherine, sang well, but I thought she emphasized the character’s shrewish qualities a little too much.


Dwayne Clark, center, in “Pippin.”

My biggest problem with this production, though, was the volume of the six-piece band. It was often so loud it drowned out lyrics. Lynn was the only actor who sang loud enough to always be heard above it.

A song like Charlemagne’s pedagogical “War Is a Science” has so much wordplay it almost seems like something out of Gilbert & Sullivan. He sings:

Listen to me, men, as I endeavor to explain
What separates a charlatan from a Charlemagne
A rule known to generals illustrious and various
Though Pompous as a Pompey or daring as a Darius
A little rule that every leader knows by heart
It’s smarter to be lucky than it’s lucky to be smart

Without every word coming through loud and clear, though, the song loses a lot of its charm.

Still, overall, this production has charm, and energy, to spare. And magic, of course.

And, to be fair, songs such as Pippin’s “Corner of the Sky,” The Leading Player’s “On the Right Track,” the Pippin/Catherine duet “Love Song” and Catherine’s bittersweet “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man” rely less on wordplay, and more on Schwartz’s sumptuous melodies. So the band volume is not always a major issue.

And, really, this “Pippin” is worth seeing for Dandridge’s performance alone. Though there is so much more to it, as well.

The Vanguard Theater in Montclair will present “Pippin” through June 30. Visit The show’s program advises that “Viewer discretion is advised” due to content that has to do with sex, violence, the occult and drugs.


Since launching in September 2014,, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.


Custom Amount

Personal Info

Donation Total: $20.00

Explore more articles:

Leave a Comment

Sign up for our Newsletter