BWW REVIEW: PIPPIN Comes of Age in A.R.T. Revival
Back to the Article
by Jan Nargi
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.
Of course, the organic realization of Paulus' penetrating new vision for PIPPIN ultimately hinges on precise execution by the entire cast. And this combined ensemble of circus daredevils and theatrical pros is absolute perfection. As Pippin, Thomas brings a passionate hunger to his spiritual quest along with a very appealing awkwardness that makes him seem alone and lonely in the world - a little alienated perhaps but also susceptible to The Temptations placed before him by the Leading Player. His face is nicely expressive and shows confusion, humor, determination and despair in response to the enticements that the circus troupe enacts around him. His voice is expressive, too - gentle and questioning when the world is confusing to him but also confident and strong once he's made up his mind.
As his love interest Catherine, a "not so young" widow with an impressionable young son named Theo (local up and comer Andrew Cekala), Jones teeters effortlessly between comically self-effacing and deeply heartbreaking. She enters in a whirl of theatrical slapstick but slowly, almost imperceptibly, transforms into the show's unyielding moral compass. Her "Kind of Woman" is a beautifully rendered juxtaposition of gentle self mockery and quiet desperation as she cautiously but bravely dares to reach for what is likely her very last chance at love and happiness with the restless Pippin.
Real life couple Mann and d'Amboise make for a delectable royal pair, he a bit dim and all the more dangerous (and funny) for it and she a sexy conniver who knows that the quickest way to a man's heart is not through his stomach. As Lewis, Fastrada's muscle-bound, oafish and self-possessed son, Erik Altemus manages to be childish yet likable all the while primping, preening, and striking warrior poses that frighten exactly no one.
Broadway treasure Andrea Martin all but steals the show with her bravura performance as the wise and wonderful Berthe. In her one knockout musical number she infuses her aging grandmother with a joie de vivre that would put a mile-long smile on the curmudgeonliest heart. She winks, she sashays, and she embraces every moment of the spotlight, savoring all of life's pleasures as if they will be her last. Never has "No Time at All" resonated with so much life or sounded so poignant. The knowing sadness behind Martin's sparkling eyes as she sings "time to start living" is both penetrating and profound.
Ultimately the challenge of making Pippin's journey a matter of life-or-death consequences falls on the shoulders of the Leading Player. In the original, the inimitable Ben Vereen scored a Tony for his enigmatic and seductive portrayal of the troupe's mysterious emcee. Here the sultry vocal powerhouse Patina Miller takes her slithery song and dance talents even further to create a taunting, tantalizing spiritual guide who needs her disciple Pippin just as much as Pippin needs her. Knowing full well that a leader is powerless unless she has followers, Miller is like the serpent in the Garden of Eden, tempting Pippin with more and more delicious fruits as his resolve to become extraordinary wanes with each new disillusionment and defeat.
What we see in this revival of PIPPIN, then, is a symbiotic relationship, a Leading Player who can't be fulfilled unless her protégé achieves his dreams. As a result the pair's light-hearted duet, "On the Right Track," becomes not just a gentle encouragement for Pippin to continue on his quest but also a solidifying of their bond as partners on the path to mutual glory. While the Leading Player teaches Pippin his steps in this all-important dance, Miller lets her true affection for the young man begin to show. In so doing, her fate is now sealed - and her power, even though Pippin doesn't know it, is placed in his hands.
This urgency raises the stakes in the grand Finale exponentially. A forced choice that can come off as an anti-climactic gimmick here is a mesmerizing build-up that feverishly pushes Pippin to be drawn to his destiny like a moth to a flame. The dramatic tension is palpable, and Miller practically salivates at the execution of the deed.
All of the design elements are as exquisitely rendered as the acrobatics, choreography, and performances. The circus tent set by Scott Pask and lighting and sound by Kenneth Posner and Clive Goodwin all work in harmony to enhance the magic of Paulus' production. Costumes by Dominique Lemieux are particularly bold and exciting. Combining elements of the circus, ballet, and commedia dell'Arte, her costumes mesh the acrobatic and dancing ensemble into one unified corps while punctuating character traits of each of the members. There's also a timeless feel to the costuming. The sense is a little bit carnival and a little bit rock and roll.
Under Paulus' sure and steady guidance - and in collaboration with not only her production team but also original creators Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson - PIPPIN has come of age. No longer a flower child born of the Vietnam Era, this quirky little musical fable has matured and become a story for all time.
To absolutely no one's surprise, PIPPIN will be transferring to Broadway once its run at the A.R.T. ends on January 20. The first Broadway revival ever of this 40-year-old favorite, PIPPIN opens at the Music Box Theater in NYC on April 25 (just in time for the Tony Awards). Previews begin March 23.
Pre-sale tickets for the Broadway run have already become available to Audience Rewards members. For more information, visit www.PippintheMusical.com.
PHOTOS BY MICHAEL J. LUTCH: Matthew James Thomas; Patina Miller and company; Charlotte d'Amboise; Matthew James Thomas and company; Terrence Mann and company; Andrea Martin, Matthew James Thomas and company; Patina Miller