When this version of Pippin hits New York, it will be a welcome alternative to the trend among many of the current Broadway musicals to demote dance elements to the background.
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. At New York’s Music Box Theater, opening March 23.
By Iris Fanger
The 1972 musical Pippin, by Roger O. Hirson and the (then) 25-year-old Stephen Schwartz, might not have become a five-year wonder on Broadway if it were not for director and choreographer Bob Fosse’s memorably cynical take on life, war, politics, hero worship, a boy’s coming of age, and sex. At its best, the score is mediocre, with only a few memorable songs, while the book asks life’s big questions and reduces its answers to clichés.
However, Fosse’s erotically charged movement, injected with a healthy dose of sleaze to cut against the self-importance of the dialogue and the dark swerves of the story, catapulted the adventures of the nerdy Pippin (historically Pepin), lackluster son of the emperor Charlemagne, into a five-year Broadway hit. Right from the top, Fosse’s ghost looms large in the revival at the American Repertory Theater, smartly directed by Diane Paulus. A shadowy figure projected on the front curtain, complete with jutting hips and splayed fingers, is the opening image of the show.
In the Paulus production, the Fosse trademarks are wrapped into every inch of the musical numbers. Leading Player (Patina Miller in the role that made Ben Vereen a star), stands in half-faced pose, a hip pushed out, one hand on her straw hat, the other clutching a cane, to lead the corps de burlesque, who strut with caved-in chests and hitched-up shoulders to the syncopated beat. Musical comedy diva Charlotte D’Amboise, as the Cruella de Vil stepmother, sizzles through her solo, stretching her perfect legs out to infinity for the high kicks while running her hands up and down her body and then using them to fluff out her hair in mock innocence. The three-person, soft-shoe unison number for “Glory,” the tongue-in-cheek, anti-war dance referring to the (bloody) good, old days is a direct recreation of the original number, nicknamed the “Manson Trio.” Later Matthew James Thomas, who plays Pippin, is cleverly set up as a klutz who cannot quite handle the Fosse sophistication, even though the performer is a terrific dancer on his own.
Paulus, now into her third season as artistic director of American Repertory Theater, is a master at re-bottling old wine into contemporary revivals for the Great White Way—think Hair, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, and now Pippin. As show-biz savvy as they come, Paulus well understands the challenges of the show as written and exploits an alternate possibility. To counteract the weakness of the material, she hired a double shot of choreographers: Chet Walker, a veteran of the original production and Fosse acolyte, to choreograph the dances “in the style of Bob Fosse,” and Gypsy Snider, founder and director of the Montreal-based troupe of circus acrobats Les 7 Doigts De La Main, who brought her performers along. When this version of Pippin hits New York, it will be a welcome alternative to the trend among many of the current Broadway musicals to demote dance elements to the background.
In Paulus’s revival, the stage is turned into a circus, backed by a blue, canvas sky studded with stars. During the first act, the remarkable acrobats can be found tumbling, falling, leaping, jumping through hoops, climbing two poles, or hanging by their heels above the hip-jutting, pelvis-grinding, scantily clad dancers beneath them. Walker and Snider have worked together to mingle the acrobats and the dancers, utilizing the performers in the big numbers to go beyond the circus tricks. That’s the good news, because there is not much else, except for the gyrations of the movers and the skills of the Broadway veterans in the leading roles who invest the dialogue with a sub-text the writers omitted.
When the Walker-Fosse and Snider choreography moves front and center, Pippin delivers first-rate entertainment, but as the show shifts mood from “extraordinary” to “ordinary” after the interval, the proverbial second act malaise sets in. (One innovation of the 1972 production was to omit an intermission, a novelty in that era).
Paulus has packed the cast with Broadway super-stars: Miller (late of Sister Act) as Leading Player; Terrence Mann (the original Javert in the American production of Les Miserables) as Charlemagne; his wife, d’Amboise (lead roles in Sweet Charity and Chicago) as Fastrada, Pippin’s step-mother; and Andrea Martin (Young Frankenstein, Oklahoma revival, not to mention the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding) as Berthe, Pippin’s swinging grandmother (pun intended). Thomas, the 25-year-old Brit who came to America to share the lead role in Spiderman Turn Off The Dark, appears as Pippin, a character as underdeveloped as any in American musical theater, despite his many songs. Martin and Mann are to be congratulated for gleefully joining the ranks of the moving parts of the production. At times, it’s hard to believe one is seated on Brattle Street, in Cambridge’s Loeb Drama Center, watching these imported talents explode off the stage.
Note: Here’s a You Tube clip of Ben Vereen and cast singing the song “Glory” on the 1981 DVD of Pippin.
Bill Marx’s take for The Arts Fuse on Pippin at the American Repertory Theater.