If you’re a theater person anywhere near my age, there’s a good chance that you have strong feelings about Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson’s famous Bob Fosse musical Pippin. I’m one of the folks who love it, but for many, the mere mention of the fey, pop-tune-driven faux medicine show prompts violent eye rolling.
Why is this? I think it’s because the show became both a victim of its time and a victim of its own popularity. It was, after all, the first Broadway musical to employ television advertising, and it ran on Broadway for six years. But the warm, catchy tunes developed arthritis after too many bad high school and college and community theater productions. After too many young j
uveniles auditioned with “Corner of the Sky” or “Extraordinary” (guilty!). As one of the shows boosters, this has always made me sad.
Perhaps one of the reasons the show hasn’t aged all that well is that so many of the numbers depend on irony. Very few of the songs in Pippin are about what they are actually about. If you know what I mean. Fastrada’s “Spread a Little Sunshine” is about spreading chaos, not love. “Glory” is about how awful war is not how glorious it is. “Extraordinary” is really commenting on a clueless young man’s inflated sense of his own importance. And “With You,” a beautiful love ballad that I actually sang in my big sister’s wedding, is about an orgy. Good irony isn’t that easy to pull off, and when it gets tired it can devolve into a deadly coyness.
That’s why the current tour version of the Broadway revival version of the American Repertory Theater’s reimagining of Pippin is such great news.
On paper, I don’t like the high concept ART used: Basically, a Cirque du Soleil Pippin. I cringed at the thought. I remember how much I dislike that concept when I’ve seen used in various disappointing productions of Bernstein’s Candide.
But somehow, it works.
First, I give credit to director Diane Marie Paulus, who must be some kind of mad genius. She was the director of the recent Broadway revival of another of my favorite musicals, Hair… which was the best production of that show I’ve ever seen. She and her team are not afraid to reexamine, to tinker, to re-think.
This time around, the story of Charlemagne’s feckless oldest son is told by a circus troupe, and the Lead Player (originally played by Ben Vereen) is now played by a woman. Why not?
The ensemble is an amazing troupe with a blend of acrobatic (including many actual Cirque veterans) and theatrical backgrounds. At no point do they seem like a “chorus” – they are all shapes and sizes, and all costumed very distinctly from one another. This is a very good thing.
It’s not just the ensemble members who get into the acrobatic act, either. The Lead Player sings some of the very first song while dangling from a high trapeze, Matthew James Thomas as Pippin makes his first entrance by vaulting through a paper ring, and Andrea Martin as Berthe… well, more on her in a minute.
What makes the circus idea really work is the realization that it’s the circus inside Pippin’s head. He’s a young man, full of ambition and energy and hope and restlessness – and the aerialists, tumblers, jugglers and acrobats are really the chaos inside his own soul.
The casting is terrific. Thomas brings earnestness, humor, and a nice voice to Pippin, Sabrina Harper nails it as Fastrada, his scheming stepmother; Callan Bergman is unctuous and slimy as her son Lewis, and Kristine Reese makes the most of what’s a pretty challenging love interest role.
It’s a special treat to see John Rubinstein as Charles. He created the original role of Pippin on Broadway forty-two years ago, and he’s delightfully sharp as Pippin’s father.
Understudy Lisa Karlin gave a spectacular performance as the Lead Player at Saturday’s evening performance. I didn’t realize she was the understudy until the couple sitting next to me told me at intermission. I didn’t believe them. But they were correct.
But it’s Andrea Martin as Berthe that gives the most memorable performance in the production. Berthe has the big crowd-pleasing show if the evening, “No Time At All.” Martin, a Broadway veteran and legendary comic performer from SCTV in the 1980s, brings great warmth and humor to her big scene. But what puts it over the top is that, before the final chorus, she drops her old lady robes, revealing a svelte, buff physique, and proceeds to perform… a trapeze act. Yeah, a trapeze act. Did I mention she’s sixty-seven years old? Needless to say, she quite literally stops the show.
It’s really lucky for us Angelenos that two of the original members of this production – Andrea Martin as Berthe and Matthew James Thomas as Pippin —
But despite all the good performances, the great costumes (by Dominique Lemieux), the stunning lighting (by Kenneth Posner), the real star of the show is director Diane Paulus.
Along with her collaborators Chet Walker (choreography, aided by the ghost of Bob Fosse), and Gypsy Snide (Circus Creator), Paulus has worked a miracle: She’s blown the dust off of this ripe old chestnut and made it come alive again.
The sharpness of her direction reminds me of the work of the great Susan Schulman. There’s such specificity, such sharpness, such energy poured into every moment of the show. Schwartz’s beloved, familiar, but overdone and tired songs snap back to life under Paulus’s care. The thought and care that obviously went into every single song – What are we trying to communicate? How can we approach this in a fresh way How can we make the audience hear this song for the first time – is simply dazzling.
By the end of the evening I’d fallen in love with Pippin all over again. I think you will, too. It closes at the Pantages November 9.