EXCLUSIVE: Circus Gypsy Takes PIPPIN to New Heights at A.R.T.

According to Paulus, original director/choreographer Bob Fosse was fascinated with filmmaker Federico Fellini's view of life as circus. The show's original art work by Tony Walton sported a circus motif, and the traveling players who entice Pippin to join them do a wide array of magic tricks.

"The circus is in there," says Paulus, referring to the original concept and score. "Even the music has circus-inspired sounds. It may be a pop score, but it has a very lush orchestral profile - strings, winds, tympani, for example. Our new orchestrations by Larry Hochman give us a full immersion in that sound with added touches like calliope and accordion. It's very visceral, and while it still delivers on the original cast album that we all grew up with, it's not frozen in the 1970s. It's very here and now."

Unlike with the A.R.T.'s recent Tony Award-winning revival of "The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess," PIPPIN's original composer and librettist are very much alive - and involved in reimagining this major new production. Both Schwartz (of Godspell and Wicked fame) and Hirson have been attending run-throughs and giving notes. They have also had a hand in helping with rewrites. Their passion for the project, according to Paulus, has been exhilarating and inspirational.

"Stephen and I have been talking about doing this revival ever since I did 'Hair' in Central Park in 2008," Paulus says. "We have been working intensely on it for the past year. Both Stephen and Roger were very eager for us to use the new 2006 ending, so that's what we've done. It's more open-ended and less gimmicky than the original. Last week an elderly man was just sobbing at the end, and a young college kid at a coffee shop said it made him think about his own life in a new light. It's exciting for all of us to be revisiting this beloved work 40 years later."

While PIPPIN is one of the most popular musicals performed by high schools and community theaters, it has never been revived on Broadway. This A.R.T. production may change all that. Rumored to have caught the interest of Tony Award-winning producers Barry and Fran Weissler (Chicago, Sweet Charity, Wonderful Town), the cast boasts a slew of Broadway luminaries who are flexing all of their musical theater muscles - and are absolutely ready for prime time.

Spider-Man alum Matthew James Thomas brings what Paulus calls a "sublime vocal expression" to the role of the soulful and sensitive young Pippin. Commanding stage veteran Terrence Mann (Les Miserables, Beauty and the Beast) is his tyrannical father King Charles. Exquisite triple threat Charlotte d'Amboise (A Chorus Line, Sweet Charity) plays the scheming step-mother Fastrada, and comic tour de force Andrea Martin (Young Frankenstein, Fiddler on the Roof, Candide) struts her considerable stuff as the wise and wacky grandmother Berthe.

In an unconventional move, Paulus has cast a woman, Patina Miller (Sister Act, Hair), as the Leading Player, the role that will forever be associated with the inimitable song and dance man Vereen. A powerhouse vocalist, Miller also is said to possess the charisma, acting, dancing and fearlessness required for this production.

"Before casting I asked Stephen about the Leading Player," Paulus explains. "He said that the Leading Player can be anyone. He or she just needs to be very different from Pippin. So we looked at everyone. We saw any and all prospects. We had no specific intention to cast a woman, or an African American. We just knew we wanted a performer who could really dance. Every candidate went through pretty intense choreography during the audition, learning acrobatic moves as well as the Manson Trio. Patina emerged as a person with incredible physical skill to go along with her vocal chops and performance skills. She fulfills all of our criteria very powerfully.

"Patina has been training now for six months," Paulus continues. "The day she picked up a hula hoop and started singing while twirling, it was pretty amazing! She's also on the trapeze during the opening number. By having the actors actually doing these extraordinary feats, they are living the show's theme as they perform it. It's the challenge of musical theater times 100."

To fully integrate the circus maneuvers with the dance choreography, both actors and acrobats attended "boot camp" to learn each other's skills. Throughout rehearsals and previews, that integration has been reworked and refined. At times dancers twist and turn on ropes and silks while acrobats join the ensemble in song and dance. Everyone does everything. Acrobats even say lines in character.

"We're calling the staging 'acrofoche,'" says Chet Walker, the dance choreographer who has been entrusted by the Fosse estate with preserving the master's iconic work. "It's a combination of Gypsy's acrobatics, Fosse's original choreography, and some elements I've added in order to bring it all together. One thing Fosse taught me is that dance is based on an acting element. The storytelling is important. And that is what we are going for here. We are using and expanding upon his vocabulary to tell Pippin's story in a way we think he would choose to do it today. Fosse's world was grounded in acrobatics. So we have staged this production to allow acrobatics and dance to influence each other in a very dramatic way."

PIPPIN has its official press opening on January 3. If critics give it as positive a reception as the preview audiences have, will that rumored Broadway transfer happen this season?

"Up till now we've been focused on making it the deepest and most meaningful experience possible for Boston audiences," Paulus responds. "Of course, nothing would make us happier than to share this with a wider audience when the time is right. And I think the time is right now. There are lines in this show that really resonate for our times. We'll just have to wait and see."

PIPPIN continues at the A.R.T. through January 20. Tickets begin at $25 and can be purchased online at www.amrep.org/events/show/pippin or by calling the Box Office at 617-547-8300. The Loeb Drama Center is located 64 Brattle Street in Cambridge.

PHOTO BY KEVIN H. LIN: Philip Rosenberg and Viktoria Grimmy; PHOTOS BY MICHAEL J. LUTCH: Matthew James Thomas and company; Terrence Mann and company; Matthew James Thomas and company; Matthew James Thomas; Charlotte d'Amboise; Patina Miller and company; Andrea Martin, Matthew James Thomas and company

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Jan Nargi Jan Nargi is owner and creative director of JMN Publications, a marketing and public relations firm based in Boston, Mass. She provides consultation, communications, and writing services to clients in the health care, entertainment, financial, retail, manufacturing, non-profit, and sports industries. As a freelance writer, Jan has had hundreds of articles published in business and high-tech magazines. Theatrically, she has reviewed, written, directed, acted, produced, sung, danced, managed publicity, pounded nails, and designed lighting and sets. Jan has even acted in the occasional B-movie, playing a zombie, a psycho shrink, and a clueless news reporter. You may visit her on the web at www.jmnpublications.com.