Although Schwartz has since stated that he was in despair over that (admittedly wildly successful) production, he would find much to admire in this version directed by Gary F. Bell. The effective scenic design by Jay V. Hall is little more than scaffolding; the "orchestra" is restricted to one piano. A kind of purity permeates the evening. This is a Pippin more beholden to the ethereal airiness of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's Fantasticks or even their Celebration than to Fosse's smothering razzle-dazzle.

Although set in France during the Holy Roman Empire, the story's analogy to the sybaritic 1960s was immediate. Pippin, son of the presumably bloodthirsty Charlemagne, is the "prince of despair," in search of meaning and fulfillment (especially sexual). If in 1972 Pippin was seen as the first hippie, 36 years later there are new nuances at hand. The strained relationship between father and son — one a king, the other waiting to ascend to the throne — casts out ripples of Bush père and fils that are here for any viewers who care to see them. But mostly what we see is a young kid flexing his muscles. No, not Pippin — Stephen Schwartz, who buoys the evening with a trunkful of sassy, ebullient melodies.

The show's principal performer is the "Leading Player," a nebulous narrator cum master of ceremonies. Although this role made a Broadway star of Ben Vereen, I always felt that his showy performance was mostly about Ben Vereen. But Jeffrey D. Pruett's menacing interlocutor is a mesmerizing, at times satanic, creation. From the moment he first slithers onstage singing "Magic to Do," Pruett turns us all into willing voyeurs. His slick professionalism is equaled by Jeffrey M. Wright in the title role. Pippin can be a colorless lad, but not so here. We enjoy being in his presence. The evening is at its merriest when these two are controlling the stage, as they do in the vaudeville-like "On the Right Track." A third standout performance is delivered by a radiant Julie Venegoni, who invigorates Act Two as Pippin's romantic interest.

Oversaturated: Is The Color Purple too much of a good thing?
Paul Kolnik
Oversaturated: Is The Color Purple too much of a good thing?

Details

The Color Purple
Through November 2 at the Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand Boulevard. Tickets are $27 to $68.
Call 314-534-1678 or visit www.fabulousfox.com.

Pippin
Through November 8 at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue.
Tickets are $20 ($18 for students and seniors).
Call 314-865-1995 or visit www.straydogtheatre.org.

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Alas, much of the good work here is marred — perhaps not fatally (depending on how tolerant you are) — by one miscast role. But the underlying premise of the production — a reliance on simplicity to reveal the heart of the story — works well. Some years down the road, future stagings of The Color Purple likely will find their way to this same approach. When that occurs we will again be reminded, as we are with this Pippin, of the obvious yet sage maxim that less is more.

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