Nervous mainstream audiences could breathe easy, the messy cultural ruckus of the ’60s was over: it was ok to find yourself, spiritually and otherwise, in the suburbs.
Pippin. Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Book by Roger O. Hirson. Directed by Diane Paulus. Set by Scott Pask. Costumes by Dominique Lemieux. Lighting by Kenneth Posner. Sound by Clive Goodwin. Choreography by Chet Walker. Circus choreography by Gypsy Snider. Music direction by Charlie Alterman. Staged by the American Repertory Theater. At the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, MA, through January 20.
By Bill Marx.
When it premiered in 1972, Pippin was Broadway’s magical way of settling the hash of the hippies and war protestors, converting the trappings of rebellion into the lucrative carapace of the status quo. The show followed hard on the heels of the counterculture ‘60s and the cooling down of the Vietnam War, and it takes up (albeit mildly) some of the decade’s themes: Pippin the idealist (and son of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne) searches for peace, fulfillment, and most importantly, his own true identity.
Presto chango, via the machinations of the machiavellian Leading Player and his mesmerizing tricksters, the guy fails as a rebel and a king, an artist and a thinker, eventually giving up rebellion to embrace family values by way of a rich widow and her son. The transformation of social unrest into a consumer lifestyle choice (wealth is the price of admission — Pippin doesn’t have to work) had begun in earnest and would continue throughout the ’70s. Nervous audiences could breathe easy, the messy cultural ruckus was over: it was ok to find yourself, spiritually and otherwise, in the suburbs.
The American Repertory Theater program notes insist that Pippin‘s magical homage to conformity is relevant today, but there is no social movement now with the tidal wave following or attention-getting fury of the anti-war left—the iron hand of business rules the roost on both sides of the ideological divide and generation gap. So it makes sense that for director Diane Paulus, Pippin’s relevance is a matter of business (of the commercial theater variety) rather than art. Yes, there is the nostalgia factor, though the show’s power pop tunes and their proto-New Age-ish lyrics sound mighty musty after a decade or two of harder rock scores. And the script’s once playful meta-theatrics (Look Ma, no fourth wall!) look pretty creaky today, given the overuse of the device on stage, TV, and the screen.
Entrepreneur-wise, Paulus sees that the international success of Cirque du Soleil is creating an enormous appetite for shows that meld acrobatics and storytelling—that is where entertainment trends are heading in Las Vegas, New York, and elsewhere. (Paulus recently directed Amaluna for Cirque du Soleil. The NY Times reports that the budget for this Broadway-bound staging of Pippin is “approximately $8 million.”) So instead of director Bob Fosse’s Tony award-winning commedia dell’arte approach, Paulus gives us the Leading Player as a stylishly cynical ringmaster controlling a collection of talented and attractive performers who leap, tumble, cavort, juggle, jump, etc. This Pippin is far, far from the “greatest show on earth,” but at times it puts up a pleasant enough front.
In fact, this production of Pippin is at its most diverting when it distracts us from the fortune cookie banality of our hero, who remains pretty much a blank slate after going through the horrors of combat, experiencing high flying sexual thrills, wallowing in deep despair, and so on. Creator Stephen Schwartz calls him youthful and naïve, but for me Pippin comes off as a cold-blooded, American narcissist, a creepy counterpart to his self-loving brother, Lewis. (In some interesting ways the character anticipates the arrested development males in the films of Judd Apatow, though Pippin hasn’t a posse of boy-guys around him.) Pippin wants more out of life as long as it makes it easier for him to love himself—he is unprepared to do anything to make his life remarkable, not even to take charge of his own imagination (the circus folk) to make a nasty, amoral world better for himself or others. Vietnam may as well never have happened — which is probably the point.
The ending ladles on the Pirandellian schmaltz: the Leading Player and his crew offer Pippin a final chance to distinguish himself through self-immolation (?). Where are the pathos? Sacrificing an impossible ideal, especially when there is a soft landing, is no big deal. And why the confluence of distinction and self-destruction? Think if Shakespeare had discovered himself a la Pippin and stayed in Stratford with Anne Hathaway and the kids rather than heading off to write plays in London . . .
So, besides presenting a teary hurrah for the dubious wisdom of standing pat, what do you have? An evening of performers garbed in colorful showbizy/circus costumes pulling off nifty feats of physical derring-do (juggling knifes, balancing hoops on heads, riding unicycles) and talented singers who deserve less childish tunes to sing. In terms of the dancing, I will leave that to Iris Fanger in her Fuse review of the production’s choreography, which includes some Fossesque-inflections. As Pippin, Matthew James Thomas supplies a cheerily callow searcher, while Patina Miller makes for a statuesque and snappily limber Leading Player, particularly when the script gives her some lines that bite. Andrea Martin brings plenty of comically athletic pizzazz to the role of Pippin’s grandmother, Berthe. If only she was given a chance to exercise her brilliance at parody.
The acrobatic men and women are fun to watch, and they pull off some great stunts, especially given how well timed they have to be as part of the dramatic action. You are not always sure why some shapely bodies are bouncing and flipping across the stage, but really, does it matter? Despite Paulus’s silly claim in an ART interview that Pippin is a “powerful piece of theater,” at its core Pippin is an old-fashioned show about nothing much that — in this go-around — offers plenty of cheesecake for everybody. Thomas’ Pippin takes his shirt off a couple of times.
As a director, Paulus is more energetic than she is subtle: when the proceedings slow down her response is usually to have somebody tossed high up into the air (there’s even an audience sing-a-long). That approach becomes problematic in the second act when Pippin’s discovery of the joys of ordinary life (triggered by a dying duck) grinds the show to a gooey halt. But she is generally an efficient mover and shaker, propelling the production along with gusto so you don’t have a chance to think too hard about disappearing characters, vanishing plot threads, and nonsense sentiments. In the program, Paulus suggests that the production experiments “with a new physical vocabulary of musical theater storytelling,” but there is nothing particularly innovative here. Her conventional “corner of the sky” is the sunny, cloudless blue that perpetually sits over Broadway and Las Vegas audiences, who pay for their fair weather.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.