Wednesday, April 24, 2013

'Pippin' Revival Finds Its Corner Of The Broadway Sky

The Cast of 'Pippin':  They've Got Magic To Do!

It's been 40 years since Broadway has seen a production of the Stephen Schwartz musical Pippin, and its arrival has been anticipated by many as a much-desired breath of fresh air in what has been, until very recently, a bland and disappointing theater season.

Pippin was never wildly loved by the critics, but audiences kept it going for close to 2,000 performances between 1972 and 1977, and it did garner Tony Awards for its director/choreographer Bob Fosse, its set designer Tony Walton, and its lead actor Ben Vereen, who has been indelibly associated with the show since creating the role of the Lead Player.

The show has remained popular through many, many high school and college editions over the years, which makes perfect sense since its theme of youth seeking a purpose in life is one that speaks to young people.  Indeed, Mr. Schwartz originally conceived of Pippin as a student production while he was attending Carnegie Mellon University, just a few years prior to the show’s Broadway opening. 

There is much to commend about this revival, and I do expect that it will be a strong contender for Tony awards in at least three categories:  best revival of a musical, best directing for Diane Paulus, and best supporting actress for Andrea Martin, whose over-the-top crowd-pleasing performance of her solo (with audience participation) number is a master class in musical theater.

I do not normally warm to smoke-and-mirrors production values, especially when they are intended to distract the audience from an insipid play or musical.  Yet it is impossible not to yield to Ms. Paulus's production, which mixes circus, vaudeville, and burlesque motifs in a way that is a perfect match for this show.  The most brilliant decision was to bring in members of the Montreal-based acrobatic company called Les 7 Doigts De La Main ("7 fingers of the hand,") whose skills at tumbling, juggling, and flying through the air are extraordinary.  Gypsy Snider of 7 Doigts is responsible for the circus motif, and it is magnificently woven throughout the show.

In a way, the story of Pippin is circus-like, with elements of sideshow sleight-of-hand and illusions, and headed up by an indefatigable and omnipresent ringmaster.  In the original production, it was Mr. Vereen who inhabited this role.  Now it is in the capable hands of Patina Miller, who previously announced her presence as a London and Broadway performer to be contended with in the musical adaptation of the popular movie Sister Act.

All right, Ms. Miller is not Mr. Vereen, who had the advantage of working closely with Bob Fosse in the creation and development of the role. But she does give a gutsy and out-there performance as the Lead Player, and she does a creditable job with Chet Walker's choreography (which is identified officially as being "in the style of Bob Fosse.") Professional dancers in the audience, or others very well versed in the Fosse oeuvre, will cavil that "in the style of" isn't quite in the same league as the real thing, but it is Fosse enough for most audience members.

Matthew James Thomas, in the title role, is personable, a fine singer with a strong pop singing voice ("in the style of" American Idol and that ilk).  He comes to Pippin after serving as alternate in the role of Peter Parker in Spider-Man:  Turn Off The Dark.  If you want to picture his performance style, think of Aaron Tveit in Next to Normal

I almost feel like a grump saying this, but on the whole, Pippin is not a great work of musical theater.  The biggest problem—and I am about to get literary here—is that it has the design of a picaresque bildungsroman, an episodic coming-of-age story like Candide, for example, but without the necessary moral growth of the main character.  

Pippin doesn’t learn much from the various experiences he has (war, sex, revolution, politics, and so forth), and even when he gets in over his head (like killing his father, Charlemagne, and taking over the kingdom), he finds he can undo his actions and move on.  Even the finale, or THE FINALE as it is called, carries very little real threat with it.  The choice our hero makes—life over death—is kind of a no-brainer.  It should be his soul, not his life, which is at stake. While watching, I thought of the wonderful novel by Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes, which creates a great sense of souls-at-risk in connection with a circus theme.  If you haven’t read it, check it out.

Regardless, there is no doubt that this production of Pippin delivers what it promises:  “sets, costumes, lights, magic.”  It is filled with sizzling moments, and there is no faulting the spectacle of it all, nor the performances.  In addition to leading star turns by Ms. Miller and Mr. Thomas, Andrea Martin is truly exceptional in the role of Berthe, the advice-giving grandmother, and Terrence Mann (excellent as Charlemagne), Charlotte d’Amboise as Fastrada, and Rachel Bay Jones as Catherine all grab hold and make the most of their own little corner of the sky.

I expect that Pippin has settled in for what will, once again, prove to be a long and successful run. 

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