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NEW YORK – A medieval fable that makes a giddy hodge-podge out of Candide and Faust, bulging with sexy circus acts, magic tricks, tuneful early-‘70s pop-rock songs, elementary existentialism and comedy that runs the gamut from goofy and campy through grotesque and bawdy, Pippin shouldn’t work, but it does. Up to a point. Diane Paulus’ Broadway revival of the 1972 musical is massively, almost overwhelmingly entertaining, even if its audacious razzle-dazzle doesn’t mask the limitations of its book. Still, fans of this much-loved show couldn’t ask for a more energized production.
As she demonstrated with her Tony-winning revivals of Hair and Porgy and Bess, Paulus, who first staged this elaborate reinvention earlier this year at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., is a visionary director with a special knack for taking dated material and making it connect with contemporary audiences. That she does this without violating the prototype is all the more remarkable.
Paulus’ take on Pippin is every bit as vigorously immersive as her staging of Hair, or her long-running Off Broadway Shakespeare riff, The Donkey Show: A Midsummer Night’s Disco. She gets invaluable help here from Gypsy Snider, the co-founder of Montreal-based company 7 Fingers (Les 7 Doigts de la Main), who created the jaw-dropping cavalcade of circus stunts. These are integrated with impressive fluidity and precision into the show’s choreography, credited to Chet Walker, “in the style of Bob Fosse.”
So seamless is Snider and Walker’s collaboration that it’s often hard to tell where the work of one ends and the other begins. And while it might seem gimmicky to swap the original Pippin’s commedia dell’arte conceit for a troupe of carnies – tumblers, aerialists, jugglers, contortionists, balancing acts – whirring away under a big top, the makeover fits this show like a glove. And believe me, all that distraction proves welcome when it comes to the sappy Me Decade message mongering of Roger O. Hirson’s insipid book, a folkie fantasy about the quest for enlightenment of a Middle Ages prince.
But that plot, such as it is, has always been secondary to the framing device, a conceptual wraparound that was honed to a fare-thee-well by director-choreographer Fosse on the defining original Broadway production, which ran for five years. The quest of Pippin (Matthew James Thomas) is overseen by a Mephistophelean figure known as the Leading Player (Patina Miller). This seductive yet sinister carnival barker lures the unworldly prince to strive for the extraordinary, even at the cost of his life, while manipulatively steering him (and the audience) away from the simple rewards of love and family.
Guess which one Pip the drip ultimately chooses? In an age when every obnoxious self-promoter with an angle has his or her own reality show, that anti-aspirational moral of rejecting power and grandiosity in favor of ordinary comforts should be refreshing. Sadly, it’s just wishy-washy, despite the artful attempts of Paulus (and Fosse before her) to disguise it as something more complex.
But, hey, who cares? At least that will be the response of most audiences wowed by this revival. Its stunning theatrical impact is evident from the first notes of “Magic to Do,” one of composer Stephen Schwartz’s most infectious hits from the show. Miller’s silhouette – in tight, signature Fosse mode, with hands and splayed fingers gradually unfolding – moves sinuously downstage toward the gauzy front of “the tent,” the shadow shrinking as she gets closer. When the curtain drops, the stage literally explodes into an ADHD (in a good way) phantasmagoria of color and activity. It’s a knockout opening number.
Despite the gender flip, Miller (Sister Act) adheres to the model of original Leading Player Ben Vereen, who also played a variation on the role in Fosse’s brilliant 1979 autobiographical feature, All That Jazz. Miller is both intoxicating and slightly scary, all hard edges and insinuating smiles, showing her nasty side when things don’t go her way. She has a formidable set of pipes, not to mention arms that might have been sculpted by Michelangelo (kudos to her trainer). Seasoned dancers may be able to spot the imperfections, but Miller does a stellar job on the Fosse moves, particularly in the lead position on the famous “Manson Trio” routine that caps Pippin’s alarming taste of war.
Retaining the original dance roots was a shrewd stroke. Walker’s history with Fosse goes way back; he was a replacement cast member in the original Pippin company, appeared in Fosse’s productions of Dancin’ (1978) and Sweet Charity (1986), and he co-conceived and recreated choreography for the 1999 Broadway anthology, Fosse. As a specialized terpsichorean recycler, he runs a close second to Ann Reinking. But despite being largely borrowed, the dancing still has the thrilling sensuality, malevolence and wit that made Fosse such a distinctive force in the field. And Fosse-ologists will have fun spotting the references, including the All That Jazz “Air-otica” ballet as Pippin first samples the joys of the flesh.
The tricky family with whom scholarly Pippin is reunited upon completion of his studies at the start of the show are all more interesting in the set-up phase than the denouement – Hirson seems to lose interest in them as the story progresses. But Paulus has nonetheless assembled a cast of first-rate pros.
As Pippin’s father Charlemagne, aka Charles, the most powerful man in the world, Terrence Mann brings gravitas as well as goofball humor. The King is a daffy, self-absorbed dad and a vain, despotic ruler, his favorite word when dealing with his subjects being “Denied.” In a role that makes expert use of her dance skills, Charlotte d’Amboise plays his avaricious trophy wife and Pippin’s scheming stepmother, Fastrada, with a wicked twinkle. Erik Altemus preens and poses suitably as Lewis, the warrior son for whom Fastrada has ambitions.
Playing Pippin’s plucky exiled grandmother Berthe with the spirit of a diehard vaudevillian, Andrea Martin is a certified one-woman charm offensive. Describing what she does with her big number, “No Time at All,” would kill the surprise, but this might be the most joyously exhilarating five minutes of stage time on Broadway right now. (And is it just me, or was Martin stirring a little Cher into her vocals?)
Brit actor Thomas is a snug fit for the title role, a swoony dreamboat in his chainmail and skinny pants, unleashing a sweet pop-Broadway voice on Pippin’s signature songs, “Corner of the Sky” and “Morning Glow.” Thomas comes direct from playing the lead at matinees in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark; given how much time he spends shimmying up poles and dangling from trapezes here, daredevil theater must be his thing. The real surprise in the cast is Rachel Bay Jones. She makes a morsel of a role, widowed mother Catherine, into a touching comic meal with her lovely collision of ditzy awkwardness and pure-of-heart sincerity.
But the most noteworthy quality of this entire company is the skill with which musical-theater performers take to the territory of circus artists and vice versa. On the stunt side, the eye-popping feats continually astonish – from a human jump rope to a cheeky visual representation of intercourse (not so explicit as to require uncomfortable explanations to the kids) to a gorgeous homage, spelling out the original production’s logo in bendy bodies. Illusionist Paul Kieve also oversees some terrific magic elements.
Behind the scenes, as much engineering as design thought appears to have gone into Scott Pask’s set, while veteran Cirque du Soleil collaborator Dominique Lemieux’s costumes are an imaginative assortment of unitards and armor, playfully mixing modern with medieval. And the vivid color washes of Kenneth Posner’s lighting are the dramatic frosting on the cake. If all this creativity is in the service of a problematic musical, it’s still a wonder to behold.
Venue: The Music Box, New York (runs indefinitely)
Cast: Matthew James Thomas, Patina Miller, Terrence Mann, Charlotte d’Amboise, Rachel Bay Jones, Andrea Martin, Erik Altemus, Gregory Arsenal, Andrew Cekela, Lolita Costet, Colin Cunliffe, Andrew Fitch, Orion Griffiths, Viktoria Grimmy, Sabrina Harper, Olga Karmansky, Bethany Moore, Brad Musgrove, Stephanie Pope, Philip Rosenberg, Yannick Thomas, Molly Tynes, Anthony Wayne, Ashton Moerz
Director: Diane Paulus
Book and lyrics: Roger O. Hirson
Music and lyrics: Stephen Schwartz
Set designer: Scott Pask
Costume designer: Dominique Lemieux
Lighting designer: Kenneth Posner
Sound designers: Jonathan Deans, Garth Helm
Illusion: Paul Kieve
Choreographer: Chet Walker, in the style of Bob Fosse
Circus creations: Gypsy Snider
Music director: Charlie Alterman
Orchestrations: Larry Hochman
Music supervision & arrangements: Nadia DiGiallonardo
Presented by Barry and Fran Weissler, Howard and Janet Kagan, Lisa Matlin, Kyodo Tokyo, A&A Gordon/Brunish Trinchero,Tom Smedes/Peter Stern, Broadway Across America, Independent Presenters Network, Nrton Herrick, Allen Spivak, Rebecca Gold, Joshua Goodman, Stephen E. McManus, David Robbins/Bryan S. Weingarten, Philip Hagemann/Murray Rosenthal, Jim Kierstead/Carlos Arana/Myla Lerner, Hugh Hayes/Jamie Cesa/Jonathan Reinis
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