BWW REVIEW: PIPPIN Comes of Age in A.R.T. Revival
Book by Roger O. Hirson; music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz; scenic design, Scott Pask; costume design, Dominique Lemieux; lighting design, Kenneth Posner; sound design, Clive Goodwin; orchestrations, Larry Hochman; music supervisor, Nadia DiGiallonardo; music director, Charlie Alterman; associate music director, Sonny Paladino; illusions, Paul Kieve; associate director/production stage manager, Nancy Harrington; circus creation, Gypsy Snider; choreography, Chet Walker; director, Diane Paulus
Cast in alphabetical order:
Lewis, Erik Altemus; Theo, Andrew Cekala; Fastrada, Charlotte d'Amboise; Catherine, Rachel Bay Jones; Charles, Terrence Mann; Berthe, Andrea Martin; Leading Player, Patina Miller; Pippin, Matthew James Thomas; The Players: Gregory Aresnal, Lolita Costet, Colin Cunliffe, Andrew Fitch, Orion Griffiths, Victoria Grimmy, Olga Karmansky, Bethany Moore, Stephanie Pope, Philip Rosenberg, YanNick Thomas, Molly Tynes, and Anthony Wayne
Performances and Tickets:
Now through January 20, American Repertory Theater, LoebDramaCenter, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, Mass.; tickets start at $25 and are available online at www.amrep.org/events/show/pippin or by calling the Box Office at 617-547-8300; Broadway previews begin March 23, Music Box Theater, 239 West 45th Street, NYC with an official opening on April 25; for more information visit www.PippintheMusical.com
In an age when troubled souls grab their final headlines in a rampage of random gunfire and parents turn their children into exhibitionists to gain fleeting fame and fortune on reality TV, the question at the heart of Diane Paulus' thrilling new revival of PIPPIN (at the A.R.T. in Cambridge through January 20) seems a particularly relevant one. How far will any of us go to become extraordinary? For Pippin, a young man on a tortured, existential quest to find fulfillment and true meaning, that question becomes a matter of life or death. Will he give up his dream of greatness and settle for a life that's ordinary or seize his moment in the sun and go out in a final spectacular blaze of unforgettable glory?
The PIPPIN that first opened on Broadway 40 years ago and ran for nearly 2000 performances is remembered primarily for Stephen Schwartz's bouncy 1970s pop score and Bob Fosse's iconic Tony Award-winning direction and choreography. However, with its troupe of traveling players, wide-eyed and tie-dyed anti-establishment sensibility and playfully anachronistic mash up of modern and Medieval Times, Pippin can feel like a sweet, sentimental relic when compared to today's more brazen and cynical offerings.
Enter Diane Paulus with an imaginative new production that transforms the theater troupe into a traveling circus and features poignant character interpretation, a darker, more ambiguous ending, and rich new orchestrations, and you have an exhilarating revival that is not just fresh, it's revelatory. Suddenly a platitude-laden lightweight musical fable that once emphasized style over substance is now startling and profound. This reinvigorated PIPPIN has both style and substance. It dazzles, but it also touches the soul.
Much has been made of the jaw-dropping acrobatics that circus choreographer Gypsy Snider has incorporated into Paulus' innovative staging. While her phenomenal performers unquestionably thrill with their super human maneuvers, they also infuse their exploits of derring-do with evocative human feelings. Rather than appear as stand-alone circus acts, Snider's feats are integrated smartly and seamlessly into the storyline and musical numbers, complementing brilliantly the striking Fosse-like dance routines vibrantly choreographed by Fosse protégé and steward Chet Walker. With acrobats, actors, singers and dancers crossing over into each other's areas of expertise, the physical and emotional stakes are heightened for everyone, and the mysterious and moody subtext that gives PIPPIN its darker edge is amplified in a truly visceral way.
Right from the top in the enticing opening number "Magic to Do" we are introduced to a Leading Player (the cat-like and alluring Patina Miller) whose powers of persuasion and watchful control over her troupe and the proceedings are enhanced by aerial work on a trapeze. When the eager young Pippin (a very endearing Matthew James Thomas) goes off to war with his father King Charles (a deliciously buffoonish but also malevolent Terrence Mann), jugglers toss huge daggers across the battlefield while live bodies are hurled precariously close to them in mid air. When Pippin later succumbs to sins of the flesh, his innocent romantic desires turn prurient with acrobatic embraces morphing from gently sensuous to frighteningly violent.
During the delightfully ironic "Spread a Little Sunshine" in which Pippin's step-mother Fastrada (an almost sadistically humorous Charlotte d'Amboise) plots her husband Charles' untimely demise, mind-boggling magic tricks give three-dimensional life to the fantasies percolating inside the scheming queen's twisted brain. Later, when the balance of power shifts from Charles to Pippin, an actual balancing act that defies all laws of gravity (performed with humor and élan by Orion Griffiths) illustrates the delicate (and perhaps impossible?) marriage of politics and diplomacy.
However, it isn't just the circus motif that lifts this PIPPIN out of the idiosyncrasies of the 1970s. Lush orchestrations by Tony Award winner Larry Hochman (The Book of Mormon, The Scottsboro Boys, Spamalot) bring out the depth and variety in Schwartz's deceptively simple but cleverly multi-layered pop score. Pippin's opening wish for meaningful purpose, "Corner of the Sky," takes on the tone of an introspective, sincere plea instead of a confident declaration of youthful optimism. The Act I finale "Morning Glow" becomes a stirring anthem as Pippin seizes his power and unleashes the man inside the boy. "No Time at All," a joyful sing-along led by Pippin's exiled grandmother Berthe (the remarkable Andrea Martin), reveals stunning pathos beneath the bouncing ball. Even the treacly duet "Love Song" that Pippin sings with his newfound love Catherine (the whimsical and warm Rachel Bay Jones) lands here as a sweetly understated and sincere joy.