In my last review, I began saying that sensory overload is one of the primary qualities of musical theatre (opera and ballet as well as the musical). HERE LIES LOVE gave us one form of sensory overload with its constant disco beat and audience participation. Diane Paulus's revival of PIPPIN gives us another. PIPPIN was always a show within a show -- a troupe of performers telling a story. Bob Fosse's original production, which ran for almost five years (1972-77), was imbued with Fosse's love for the excitement and tawdriness of theatre. PIPPIN has a thin narrative, but it is a myth of maturation in which theatre represents a childhood dream of a life of excitement, a life of being "extraordinary", as the central character sings. Eventually one has to give up that dream, but it's the showbiz dream that makes the musical exciting. In an age when everyone wants to be a celebrity, at least for fifteen minutes, PIPPIN has more resonance than it did four decades ago. In this revival, Chet Walker has given us choreography "in the style of Bob Fosse", and the allure of theatre has been magnified by the circus acts created by Gypsy Snider. Dance and the circus acts have been brilliantly integrated in this thrillingly staged production. The storytelling gets overshadowed, but there's not much of a story anyway.
It was clear from the outset that most of the capacity audience at the Music Box Theatre last night knew the show -- thousands of people have seen or been in high school, college and community theatre productions of PIPPIN. The openings of Stephen Schwartz's songs were cheered by this audience of PIPPIN fans. It's an ingratiating score. Often songs barely fit into the narrative -- why is Pippin singing a song called "Morning Glow" after he has killed his father and usurped the throne? It's a sweet song that becomes a choral anthem before it finishes. It isn't the best fit for that moment, but PIPPIN is far from a Sondheim musical. The ending has always been a bit of a bummer. Pippin might want an ordinary life, but in a musical, showbiz always wins. That's what we're paying for. This production redeems the childhood dream at the end.
Through much of the first act, I was reminded that PIPPIN was a Nixon era show. All the anti-war material was originally seen in the context of the still raging Vietnam War and the show's tyrannical Emperor Charlemagne took on particular relevance as the Watergate scandal raged during the show's original run. We've still got war and cruel, absurd politicians, though this revival doesn't seem to care much about the contemporary relevance of the show. This one is all showbiz. Maybe Paulus's approach is perfect for what PIPPIN says for our age. Forget idealism, forget politics. We can't change anything -- all we can do is tend our own gardens, as Voltaire said. After all, PIPPIN is a softer version of Voltaire's CANDIDE. Under all the glitz is a cynical message.
The cast is a mixed bag. Andrea Martin steals the show as Pippin's grandmother. "No Time at All" is always a showstopper in the right hands (Irene Ryan was memorable back in 1972), but in this production Martin does an amazing trapeze act in the midst of her number. She might be singing about the horrors of aging, but she proves to be ageless. Terrence Mann and Charlotte d'Amboise make the most of the cardboard roles of Charlemagne and his sexy wife. The singing, dancing, juggling, ensemble is simply amazing. That leaves the two principals. Matthew James Thomas, our Pippin, is cute, sweet and an amazing gymnast, but not much of a singer. This may be a minor cavil, but there are probably dozens of talented young American musical theatre performers who could have played that role as well and sung it better than Thomas (I have seen them in university productions). Why did Actors' Equity allow the casting of a non-American performer in the role? The crucial role in Pippin is the Leading Player, who must represent the magic and allure of theatre and be Pippin's guide through his maturation process. Ben Vereen became a star though that role in 1972, and I have seen lots of performers, male and female, make something of the part. All one can say of Patina Miller is that she looks good and goes through the motions in an efficient, soul-less way. She can sing and dance, but she's too cold a performer to be the spirit of theatre. Her hardness may be a directorial choice; nonetheless, it takes some of the sweetness and heart out of the show. The dream of theatre is the only positive thing PIPPIN offers and if the Leading Player is cold, nasty at times, even that dream becomes sinister.
The audience genuinely loved the show. Like most PIPPIN audiences they were less enthusiastic about the celebration of ordinariness than they were about the glitz. Despite Miller's chilly performance, the glitz -- and the songs -- make this revival worth seeing.
PIPPIN. Music Box Theatre. May 8, 2013.