Friday, July 19, 2013

theatre review PIPPIN, Broadway, June 27

The Broadway revival of Pippin has received numerous accolades including getting great reviews and winning four Tony's including the one for best musical revival.  While the book of the show still leads a little to be desired, the pop-rock score by Stephen Schwartz is wonderful, including several showstoppers and the direction from Diane Paulus expertly combines a circus theme with the story of a young man on a quest to find himself.  Originally conceived by composer Schwartz as a college musical, this is the first Broadway revival the production has had since the long running original production closed in June of 1977 after running for over four and a half years.

Patina Miller as The Leading Player
The story of the show focuses on a group of performers, overseen by a leading player who serves as the master of ceremonies, who tell the tale of naive young prince Pippin, who has returned home after getting his education.  His father, the King Charlemagne, has married a much younger wife Fastrada and her son Lewis has already taken his place in Charlemagne's army. Pippin, not sure how he can prove himself, believes that going to battle will do just that, and so begins the first of many quests for Pippin to find his way in life. Along his journey he finds art, religion, has lots of mindless sex that leaves him empty and unfulfilled, meets up with his grandmother who gives him some wise advice as well as encounters a young widow and her son.

Terrence Mann and Mathew James Thomas
In the middle of all of this, when the Leading Player suggests that perhaps Pippin try to go against the tyrant that his father has become, this forces Fastrada to concoct a plan that she believes will make her son the King.  But all plans don't exactly go the way as planned including when you have a group of performers enacting a story that if they happen to not like the way it is going may just decide to make changes to the plot themselves. This only frustrates the Leading Player who is trying to steer Pippin to a spectacular finale that is the ultimate sacrifice, something that Pippin is unsure he is prepared to do.

It is an interesting story about a young man on the search for his purpose in life, a life where living in a castle and being wealthy may not be what is best but instead a life of modesty and simple joys.  It is a simple and often told tale but director Paulus has enveloped it within a circus tent that explodes with acrobats, tumblers, trapeze artists, dancers and other magical moments that elevate this simple tale into one of mystery, suspense and pure enjoyment.

Andrea Martin and Matthew James Thomas
At the center of the show is Patina Miller as the Leading Player, a role usually played by a man and originated by Ben Vereen in the 1972 Broadway production.  Miller, like Vereen, won a Tony for her performance and she is stellar in the role.  Singing and dancing up a storm with both comical and serious sides to her character.  She is both sexual and sweet and also nice and yet intimidating and disturbing too.   Matthew James Thomas is Pippin.  He is tall and handsome yet somewhat nerdy and awkward as well.  He has a lovely singing voice and does a find job in taking us along on Pippin's journey of self discovery. 

Also in the cast are real life husband and wife Terrence Mann and Charlotte d'Amboise as Charlemagne and Fastrada.  Both are excellent in their supporting parts with Mann a forceful but fun King and d'Amboise perfect as the conniving second wife who dances up a storm.  Andrea Martin is Berthe, Pippin's grandmother who stops the show with her first act solo "No Time at All."   Martin won her well deserved second Tony for her performance.  Rachel Bay Jones is Catherine, the young widow that Pippin meets who makes him realize the possibilities of a simple life.  She is earthy and charming but also very funny and touching.  The ensemble is comprised of many members of the Montreal-based circus troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main and each one is given a moment or two to shine as well as is incorporated effectively and seemlessly into the story.

Paulus' direction moves the show along at a quick clip but also allows the right amount of time for the circus choreography and acrobatics by Chet Walker and Gypsy Snider to perfectly interweave with the score and book by Roger O. Hirson.  The way the main cast is interwoven into some of the circus acts by Snider is also extremely dazzling and extra special as you feel that even these non circus performers have risen to almost the same level that the circus trained ones in the cast are at.  The original Broadway production was directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse and a few of Fosse's signature dances from that production are incorporated as well.  Scenic design by Scott Pask combines vibrant colors all set under a Big Top Tent that becomes even more magical at the very end of the show when it transforms into something else entirely.  Costume design by Dominique Lemieux perfectly combines the colorful circus theme with the required sensual and serious elements of the plot.

Is Pippin a perfect show?  No.  But it is one with many magical and memorable moments and when combined with Paulus' re-energizing of the material with her circus theme it elevates it into a joyful and dazzling experience of a story of self discovery that is truly not to be missed. 

Official Show Site

Highlights from this production:

2013 Tony performance:

"Simple Joys" performed on the David Letterman Show:

"On the Right Track" performed on The View:

"Magic to Do" music video with scenes from the recording of the cast album:

Cast rehearsal clips and interviews with the cast and creative team:

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