Thursday, April 25, 2013

They've Got Magic to Do, and It's Extraordinary

Review:  Pippin
Because it wouldn't be a Fosse show without canes and top hats.

There’s no reason to mince words:  Diane Paulus has done it again.  Her revival of Pippin, like her Hair and Porgy and Bess before it, takes a classic piece of musical theatre and effortlessly modernizes it, imbuing it with a vibrancy and relevance that feels wholly contemporary while still respecting what made the show popular to begin with.  Ambitious in scope and stunningly theatrical, this Pippin is above all a celebration of the magic of live performance, a sumptuous feast for the senses brought to life by one of the finest ensembles of this Broadway season.

The story of Pippin is (very) loosely based on the life of the eldest son of King Charlemagne, who ruled over all of Western Europe at the start of the ninth century.  Well-educated but without much purpose in life, Pippin spends the show searching for fulfillment through various pursuits including war, political activism, and even the pleasures of the flesh.  This is all presented as a show-within-a-show performed by a group of traveling Players, enacted for the audience’s enjoyment at the behest of their leader (appropriately called the Leading Player).  The narrative is not without its problems; the libretto by Roger O. Hirson definitely shows its age, and despite some incredibly catchy numbers it is clear this show represents Stephen Schwartz before he gained full command of his musical gifts.

What Pippin needs, and what it gets in Paulus, is a director with a definitive concept to shape the production around.  Paulus’ stroke of genius is making the Players members of an actual circus, similar in style to Cirque du Soleil.  In conjunction with Gypsy Snider of the circus troupe Les 7 doigts de la main, Paulus has filled this revival to the brim with dizzying displays of athletic superiority and acrobatic prowess.  Performers jump, dive, and climb into a mind-boggling array of positions and pairings, all while singing and dancing the Fosse-inspired choreography by Chet Walker.  Between the aerial work, tumbling, knife throwing, fire juggling, and copious amount of magic tricks, your jaw is guaranteed to drop in amazement at least once over the course of the evening.  Yet for all the feats of human agility on display, Paulus keeps a remarkable grip on the actual narrative, portraying it with more clarity and genuine heart than it probably deserves. 

Paulus’ inspired direction is expertly executed by her top-notch cast, a mix of Tony-nominated veterans and Broadway newcomers that are all completely at home here.  As the Leading Player, Patina Miller follows up her star-making debut in Sister Act with another full-throttle performance.  Tackling the song-and-dance role head on, Miller belts to the rafters and uses her lithe frame to embody the Fosse style with surprising dexterity, all the while charming the audience into submission with her winning smile.  In fact, the only complaint that can be leveled against Miller is that she sometimes seems to be working too hard, with her performance lacking the ease of the most accomplished stage actors.

Matthew James Thomas plays Pippin with the appealing earnestness of a young man looking to find his way in the world, and manages to do so without coming across as whiny or petulant.  The character is underwritten and a bit of a cipher, but Thomas more than makes up for it with his winning personality and rock-tinged tenor.  Terrance Mann gives a delightfully hammy performance as Charlemagne, oscillating between doting father and imposing authority figure with ease, and his real life spouse Charlotte d’Amboise portrays his onstage wife, Queen Fastrada, with the perfect mix of political cunning and feigned ignorance.  Finally, special recognition must be given to Tony-winner Andrea Martin’s scene-stealing turn as Pippin’s grandmother Berthe.  Over the course of one ten-minute scene, Martin manages to make one of the strongest impressions of the night and leaves the audience practically begging for more. 

Pippin’s intentionally garish production design only adds to the show’s overall charm, from the barely-there costumes of Dominique Lemieux to Scott Pask’s big top-inspired set.  This revival is a triumph, a coup de theatre that celebrates all that is magical about the Great White Way.  With her bold but wholly organic direction, Paulus has rescued a work in danger of becoming dated and brought it crashing into the 21st century, appealing to modern sensibilities while still honoring the show’s roots.  There’s plenty of magic to be found in this production, and anyone interested in seeing it should buy their tickets now before they disappear.

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