BROADWAY REVIEW: PIPPIN Featured
Dated Show? Weak Story? Cue The Acrobats…!
April 25, 2013
Give them bread and circuses and they will never revolt….Coined by the Roman poet Juvenal in the first Century
Sometimes I think God wants there to be a circus so we can show there's another way to respond….Tony Dungy
Sometimes, though not too often, more is more.
In the new revival of PIPPIN at the Music Box, director Diane Paulus (HAIR, PORGY AND BESS) takes the Stephan Schwartz idea of making the players clowns, adopts Fosse’s changing the clowns to a professional acting troupe, and expands it all into an often frenetic circus.
It’s a hell of a spectacle. And it’s great fun. Go see it!
It is, I felt, a trite and uninteresting story with aspirations to a seriousness it never for one moment fulfills….Clive Barnes in the Times review of the original production
Sometimes PIPPIN can get a bit too frenetic, but the trite and uninteresting story isn’t allowed to take center stage until the very end, when Paulus uses it to give the story the seriousness Barnes didn’t experience.
Okay, first the clichéd story: Pippin is the son of Charlemagne, but – it being 1972 when the show debuted – he’s driven not to conquer the world, but to find fulfillment in his life by doing extraordinary things. He goes through a series of quests, only to find in the end that fulfillment comes from living a simple life.
Uh, yes, as in CANDIDE and THE FANTASTICS, and undoubtedly other shows I’m not thinking of.
Bob Fosse saved PIPPIN, and he had to bar Schwartz from rehearsals to do it….Ethan Mordden in “One More Kiss, The Broadway Musical in the 1970s”
So what do you do to overcome a trite and clichéd story? What Jerry Zaks did with the dated book in the Lincoln Center production of ANYTHING GOES: whenever a scene looked like it would fall flat, Zaks brought the entire cast onstage and overcame the weak scene with movement.
Fosse did a variation of this in the original PIPPIN, staging it in a highly stylized way that mocked the show itself. Composer/lyricist Schwartz, who had written the original book in college, protested, but Fosse prevailed, and the show ran on Broadway for nearly 2,000 performances.
Diane Paulus is perfectly in tune with our times, when attention spans are short, impactful wins the day, and wanting fulfillment loses out to smart-phone apps. When’s the last time you heard someone say he wanted fulfillment, other than an order from Amazon?
And, most importantly, Paulus makes the show enormous fun.
Several in the cast come from circuses or the world of gymnastics, so we get juggling – of torches at one point, apparently with Fire Department approval – and trapeze artistry, without safety lines, apparently with Equity approval.
In fact, nearly all the principals, including the fabulous Andrea Martin, work above the stage, which is a feat in itself.
Chet Walker (FOSSE) choreographs PIPPIN “in the style of Bob Fosse”, but whoever did what, the choreography is more fun than a barrel of Matilda’s salamanders.
We also get brilliant (in both senses) costumes by Dominique Lemieux, who comes to Broadway from the Cirque du Soleil; a wonderful set in the form of the interior of a circus tent by Scott Pask (BOOK OF MORMON); complicated and effective lighting by Kenneth Posner; and illusions from the ever-busy Paul Kieve, who’s also represented on Broadway currently by MATILDA.
And we get the fabulous Andrea Martin. She plays Pippin’s Granny, and has only one number in the show, though she appears at a few other points as a kind of extra ensemble member.
When a character’s only got one number, and you get Andrea Martin to take the role, the number must be truly great. Her “No Time At All” is that and more, though to say more would be to spoil several surprises I wouldn’t for the world spoil.
I’ll restrict myself to saying Martin’s number is the high point in a show loaded with high points. I’m playing the song – sung in the original cast album by Irene Ryan – as I type this, grinning like a fool, and thoroughly enjoying myself.
Terrance Mann shines as Charlemagne, as does Charlotte d’Amboise as his sorta evil – but definitely sexy, which can never be amiss – queen. Rachel Bay Jones also exudes sexiness, but with a maternal edge, as Catherine, the widow Pippin elects to spend his life with.
All of this is meant as great praise, but…well…aren’t there always a few buts?
Despite what the 1972 critics said in dismissing the score, it’s a fine one, with several beautiful ballads, at least one of which was ruined by the circus going on behind it. Less would have been more there.
And when you consider the decades of Broadway experience brought to the show by Mann, d’Amboise, Jones, and Martin, you wonder why Paulus went with relatively inexperienced actors when casting the two most important parts.
Patina Miller, a favorite of mine in SISTER ACT, will not make you forget Ben Vereen in her interpretation of the Leading Player. Miller has a wonderful smile, but it wears out from constant use, and she’s never otherwise convincing. The Leading Player is a domineering figure, often barking out orders to the others, but I never believed her when she barked.
And I’m afraid I must say Matthew James Thomas hasn’t a clue how to play Pippin. His voice is variable, his manner dull. Forget about fulfillment, what this Pippin needs to seek is a spark of something interesting.
Thomas’s only Broadway credit, per his Playbill bio, is Peter Parker in SPIDERMAN, which mostly called for dodging set pieces. Miller’s only Broadway credit is SISTER ACT, where I now see her smile did much of the work.
At the top of the show, when the curtain went up to disclose the dazzling array of circus performers and they went into action, doing stunts and tricks as they joined the Leading Player in “Magic To Do”, I thought it just might be the best opening of any Broadway show ever, not excluding FORUM or RAGTIME. PIPPIN doesn’t always play on such a high note, but it often does, which made for a most enjoyable way to end the season.
Rating (5 stars possible): ****
The bottom line: An unforgettable spectacle
Who should go? All but die-hard fans who insist on the original version
Do I recommend it? Yes, yes, and yes!