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Theatre Three's Pippin Searches for the Meaning of Life (Yawn)

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Theater Caps are bite-sized punch-packing capsule reviews by resident theater critic Elaine Liner. Use them as a reminder -- or a teaser, if you procrastinate -- of her full-length reviews in The Mixmaster's weekly sister.

Even if Theatre Three's production of Pippin were stripped of all the weird gimmicks imposed by director-designer Bruce Coleman, it would still come across as one of the 1970s' hokiest musicals. As the LA Times pointed out when the Mark Taper Forum revived the show two years ago, there's a reason it's never been back on Broadway in four decades. Based loosely on the life of King Charlemagne, Pippin has a bad case of touchy-feelies in its story of a young man, the king's son, trying to find his purpose in life after college. Or as Pippin puts it, trying "to find my corner of the sky."

That's the same key plot element of Avenue Q, which is a whole lot funnier, and, come to think of it, it's the same basic plot of the current Tony Awards champ, The Book of Mormon, which might be the funniest new show since A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Pippin is Godspell sans Jesus and with lots more jazz hands. Stephen Schwartz, who wrote those shows in the early 1970s, came back 30 years on with the much better, much bigger Wicked, still running on Broadway. Guess he finally found his purpose.

At Theatre Three, two of the leads, Max Swarner as Pippin, and Lee Jamison as his girlfriend Catherine, are fine. So good, in fact, that they seem to be acting and singing in a different show from the rest of the large, unwieldy ensemble.

But what a mess is going on around the stars in Pippin. The set is a junk heap (I counted three Styrofoam wig heads glued to the stage...why?) and the costumes (also by Coleman) mistake bad taste for whimsy.

Worn by the chorus, mostly in illogical layers, are: harlequin-print leotards, lace-up corsets, fishnets, a Nazi helmet, a Hugh Hefner-style captain's hat, shaggy boas, fringe, burlap, brocade, velvet, denim, bold woolen plaid, yoga pants, jog bras, petticoats, boots, ballet shoes, top hats, Victorian bustles, bare feet, gloves, berets, capes, white mime makeup and fake fur. The effect is a visual blur of ugliness on dancers dry-humping each other in choreography that reeks of old Jazzercise routines. What's the purpose in all that?

The production also feels as if it's been slowed to half speed. The opening number, "Magic to Do," should explode onto the stage like fireworks. Instead, T3's lacks magic and is sung with such logy lethargy by Natalie King (in the Ben Vereen role) that it almost put me to sleep.

Big yawn, the whole thing.

Pippin continues through July 2 at Theatre Three in The Quadrangle. Call the box office at 214-871-3300.

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