PIPPIN: A Bollywood Spectacular? Why, yes. Yes, it is.
For consistency and boldness of artistic vision, or (more accurately) for auteur singularity of mind in application of a specific lens to the artistic work of another, one need look no further than to Oak Park, Illinois, and the Circle Theatre production of "Pippin," playing now through December 23, 2012 at the Madison Street Theatre.
Stepping down from his role of artistic director, but announced to continue his affiliation with the non-Equity company, director-choreographer Kevin Bellie has produced a staging of the early pop-rock musical by Stephen Schwartz, originally staged by Bob Fosse at the height of his conceptual powers, that is remarkable for its sheer force of will and the audacity of its storytelling language. It's called, "Pippin: A Bollywood Spectacular." Even if you end up not liking it, you must see this. And it worked for me. Let me explain.
As you may know, "Pippin" has always been a concept show. It's a play within a play, not unlike "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," "Once on This Island," "Man of La Mancha" and others. And it's one that uses dance, scenery and song to tell, and subvert the telling of, a coming-of-age yarn ostensibly about the oldest son of Charlemagne, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. It's never staged in costumes and scenery entirely from the European Middle Ages, by the way.
In the original script (and, in a different way, in the revised script now commonly used), something happens between the actors playing the roles of Pippin, his love interest Catherine, and the "Leading Player," the narrator and star of the troupe of players telling this yarn. The script is thrown out, the promised ending is replaced by another, the orchestra is told to stop playing, and so on. Like I said, it's always been a concept show.
Bellie, perhaps taking his cue from Schwartz's lyric, "Journey to a spot exciting, mystic and exotic," sets the tale not in the France of the historical Charlemagne, but in India. The dialogue still refers to Arles and the Visigoths, but the map on the wall shows South Asia and Saudi Arabia. Why not? Probably any style will do, as long as it's consistently thought through and realized. And this one is. The costumes, scenery, choreography and musical arrangements are all in the "Bollywood" style, popularized by the huge volume of musical films produced in Bombay in recent times, so popular worldwide now that Bollywood dance classes are being offered alongside jazz, tap and ballet in dance studios across the globe. No, really.
And in one more conceptual stroke, Bellie's Pippin, or at least the actor playing him (the actor whom, we're told, is new in the part at tonight's performance), is sleeping as the show begins, being wakened from his dreams of India by his alarm clock and by the actors of the play emerging from the inside of his mattress. Come to think of it, maybe he doesn't wake up, after all…. Hmm.
Where does this all lead, you might ask? The sleeping Pippin actor, the clown-car mattress, the South Asian clothes, makeup and hair, the aerobic Indian dances, the music (more or less conventional in the ballads, but definitely transformed in the up-tempo numbers) and the palace scenery that wouldn't be out of place at "The King and I?" Oh, and did I mention a Leading Player who is pretty much evil and menacing throughout? He is. And here's where it leads--I actually understood the ending! And that, my friends, makes "Pippin: A Bollywood Spectacular" worth seeing. The show, in all its conceptual layers, makes dramatic sense.
Here's what this show shows: Actor X (my name for him) dreams about India, and from those dreams emerges a troupe of players from the musical films of Bollywood. That Actor assumes the role of Pippin in a musical version of Charlemagne's son's life, and all goes well, until Actress Y, playing the role of Catherine, really falls in love with Actor X. She departs from the script, emboldening him. And now, when he is told by the Leading Player that he must immolate himself and die in a spectacular blaze of glory, Actor X rebels too, holding close to Actress Y and to the boy (Actor Z) who, perhaps, is her real son (he plays Theo in the theatrical). The Leading Player, angry that his bloodthirstiness has been thwarted, that his evil theatrical trick hasn't worked, storms out, taking everyone else with him. Man, woman and child begin to depart together. And yet, the child actor may very well one day face the same threat that Actor X has faced. Will he overcome it, and cheat death, too? Thank God it may all have been a dream….