In Short: The American Repertory Theater’s new production of “Pippin” is a sharply written show, with strong performances by an enthusiastic and talented cast. This re-imagined production, directed by Diane Paulus, places the entire show under a circus tent and features stage illusions and circus skills woven throughout. With its vaudeville sensibility and sensuous production, it’s bound to be an entertaining evening for even those who shy from traditional musical comedy.
“Pippin” is a bright, brash, sexy and sometimes touching musical that fills the stage with singing, dancing, acrobatics and stage illusions. Its cast seem hell bent on leaving you breathless as they leap and tumble across the stage to present an iconic journey of a young man searching for a life of meaning.
Pippin follows the adventures of the first son of Charlemagne, the king of the Holy Roman Empire, as he attempts to find his place in the world. But don’t be confused, this isn’t an historical piece, it’s a thoroughly modern musical, with songs that combine Broadway-style tunes with 1970's rock and roll and smart funny lyrics.
Pippin isn’t a traditional musical; it’s purposely deconstructed and features a “The Leading Player” (Patina Miller) who narrates and walks us and Pippin through his adventures.
The show opens with “Magic to do”, a song that starts softly, like an old-time circus parading into town, the sound of the calliope too far away to be heard clearly. And like a carnival barker, the song is an invitation. “Join us,” the cast beckons, quiet literally. The song promises a night of laughs, intrigue, bloody battles, sex and illusion. All are delivered at a pace that rivals a night of sketch comedy, which the show resembles in its humor and self-awareness. Parents be warned: Although staged under the ‘big top’ the show includes some risqué and existential themes that make it questionable for younger children.
Fosse’s shows have always been incredibly physical; he was one of the first Broadway directors to ask lead actors to not only sing but dance with real skill and grace. This production stays true to the show’s original look, with choreography “ in the style of Bob Fosse” by Chet Walker. Even though some of his signature movements have become ubiquitous (Fosse was the originator of “Jazz Hands”) seeing talented dancers perform them with precision is still hypnotic and seductive.
ART has upped the ante even further asking cast members to also participate in circus routines including acrobatics, contortionism and juggling, although the most complex and dangerous stunts are left to cast members who are clearly circus artists first, actor/singers second. These performers (Yannick Thomas, Philip Rosenberg, Gregory Arsenal, and Orion Griffiths) are all members of the circus troupe “Les 7 Doigts de la Main” and seem to be in perpetual motion; balancing, flipping, dropping or being launched into the air.
Not to be outdone, Paulus has several of the lead actors sing while climbing, swinging or hanging upside down off the scenery, all without losing a note (eat your heart out, Justin Bieber). It’s really quite amazing. Once or twice I did feel that some of the excellent lyrics and minor plot points were lost because of a desire to fit in as much circus as possible. At one point the Leading Player announces that “Attention spans are shorter than they used to be.” My guess is the director worried about the same thing.
For fans of the original production, Paulus has faithfully recreated several of the iconic dance routines including the soft shoe anyone of a certain generation will remember from the TV commercials for the show. There’s even a nod to the original poster, with the show’s name spelled out in human bodies.
Mathew James Thomas plays Pippin with equal parts geeky enthusiasm and youthful dissatisfaction, as he struggles to find that “something” that will make his life special. Pippin is the quintessential post-graduate: having focused his entire youth doing well in school he suddenly realizes he has no idea what to do with the rest of his life.
Thomas has a fine timbered voice and a strong falsetto which, along with his winning smile and six pack abs, will certainly make him appealing to those more familiar with pop music than show tunes. And Patina Miller packs a one-two punch with a commanding voice and dancing strong enough to remind us of Ben Vereen, who originated the role.
At the opening moments of the show, Miller’s shadow appears like a giant, towering over us, on the main curtain. Seconds later she appears in her actual size but with all of that power intact, condensed into her petite form. She’s a stick of dynamite, just ready to explode, which she does in voice and dance.
The other highlight of the show is certainly Andrea Martin who does a show stopping turn as Berthe, Pippin’s Grandmother. Ms. Martin is certainly enough of a celebrity to create excitement and applause at her introduction, but her performance proves her worthy of the accolades. This is a role originated by the great Irene Ryan, who played “Granny” on the Beverly Hillbillies and I’m sure Ms. Martin will be thrilled to hear that my one concern is that she looked far too young to play the part.
The cast sounds great and the musical team (Music Director Charlie Alterman and Orchestrations Larry Hochman) keep Schwartz’s score sounding fresh and crisp.
The design of the costumes, by Dominique Lemieux, might seem familiar to anyone who knows her work with Cirque du Soleil: part European circus, part Broadway, part burlesque. Ironically, Ms. Lemieux earlier work may very well have been inspired by Fosse’s original production, costumes by Patricia Zipprodt, in 1977, when Cirque was just beginning to perform on the streets of Montreal.
ART has already announced that this production will be leaving for Broadway, and it’s sure to be a success. See it now, before it disappears mysteriously in a puff of smoke.
At the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St. Cambridge, MA 02138
For Tickets Call 617.547.8300 or www.amrep.org