After thirty-five years of occasional professional productions in cities such as London and Los Angeles, and numerous stagings in schools and community theaters, Pippin, the 1973 Tony Award-winning musical by Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson will be making its return to Broadway this spring, thanks to Director Diane Paulus and the American Repertory Theater. Paulus made the announcement at the press opening after-party at the Loeb Drama Center Thursday night, but the only surprise came in naming its future home as the Music Box Theatre. Under the auspices of producers Barry and Fran Weissler and Howard and Janet Kagan, Pippin will begin previews on March 23, 2013, and officially open on April 25, 2013.
In previews since December 5th in Cambridge, the revival is a well-oiled machine in tip top shape, set as it is under the big top with a circus theme encompassing Pippin's quest for fulfillment. Circus Creation by Gypsy Snider (of Les 7 Doigts de la Main) and Choreography in the style of Bob Fosse by protégé Chet Walker blend to tell the story as grand spectacle with colorful and exciting visuals that continually challenge the audience to choose where to focus their attention. Tumblers, jugglers and aerialists vie with singers and dancers, all dressed by Costume Designer Dominique Lemieux in body-hugging or revealing costumes and many decorated with multi-colored facial designs. Surrounded by this troupe of extraordinary artists, Pippin (Matthew James Thomas) is enticed to follow their lead in pursuit of his dream to live his own extraordinary life.
Schwartz and Hirson based the story very loosely on that of King Charlemagne's eldest son and heir to the throne during the Holy Roman Empire, circa 780 A.D. That boy had rather large shoes to fill and, in an attempt to impress his father (Terrence Mann), our hero in the play gives soldiering the old college try soon after returning from a successful academic stint. While the stage is bathed in red light and the troupe's amazing acrobatic feats represent the chaos of war, Leading Player (Patina Miller) and two dancers perform Fosse's "Manson Trio" with straw hats and canes in the midst of it all, as if to mock the battle as just so much song and dance. Pippin discovers that he does not share the blood lust of his dim-witted stepbrother Lewis (Erik Altemus), nor the thirst for power and riches of his sultry stepmother Fastrada (Charlotte d'Amboise), and moves on to sample the joys of the flesh.
At the start of each scene, one of the Players saunters across the stage holding aloft a title card. In "The Flesh" scene, Leading Player offers Pippin instruction in "Simple Joys" and he comes to understand the value of living in the moment in a visit to his paternal grandmother Berthe, banished from the court by Fastrada. The senior members of the audience chuckle knowingly at the lyrics of "No Time at All," stage veteran Andrea Martin's showstopper, and we get invited to sing along (follow the bouncing ball) on the chorus. It is one of many occasions when the fourth wall is knocked down, and arguably the most joyful.
From his initial declaration that he must find his "Corner of the Sky," through each of his many and varied experiences including a brief reign as King, Pippin ends up feeling "empty and vacant." While wandering in despair, he is found by Catherine (Rachel Bay Jones), a widow with a young son, Theo (Andrew Cekala), who takes him into her home and introduces him to an ordinary life. Pippin thinks that he is above mundane daily tasks and throws a tantrum in song ("Extraordinary") but eventually warms to Catherine and Theo, in spite of himself ("Love Song"). It is no coincidence that the most genuine emotions are exposed in this scene that reflects a life far more realistic than any of the others Pippin tries out. However, he is not quite ready to surrender the pursuit of his purpose, and the Players encourage him to complete the most perfect act ever: The Finale, and go out in a blaze of glory.
The A.R.T. revival opts to use the so-called alternate ending, as opposed to that of the original Broadway version, and Schwartz himself has expressed a preference for this interpretation. In addition to modifications of the book, Paulus' vision to join the circus arts with musical theater creates a new visual definition of the form. Her self-proclaimed love of Pippin from a very young age envelops the production from top to bottom, and her direction exhibits great care and affection down to the last detail. In addition to collaborating with Snider and Walker, she continues her long working relationship with Scenic Designer Scott Pask to convey the circus arena, the royal court, and Catherine's simple home. Kenneth Posner's lighting design manages to highlight each area of the stage at the right moment, and oftentimes he must draw our attention to multiple spots simultaneously. In fact, my lone protest is that there is so much going on that it seems impossible to take it all in. Music Director/Conductor Charlie Alterman is joined in the orchestra pit by eleven musicians, filling the 540-seat Loeb Drama Center with a full sound that does not overpower the vocals, thanks to Sound Designer Clive Goodwin.
This production of Pippin has so much going for it, it is hard to know where to begin to sing its praises. But let's start at the very beginning with the totally captivating and electrifying performance by Miller as Leading Player. Originated by Ben Vereen in a Tony-winning turn, the role is part ringmaster, part cheerleader, part tempter, and Miller intertwines all of these parts to create a mesmerizing whole. She shows herself to be a quadruple threat, being called upon to sing, dance, act, and take a few swings on the trapeze. Her costume of painted-on black tights and over the knee suede boots gives her a feline quality that is accentuated by her grasp of the Fosse moves in her dance numbers.
Another dance worth mentioning is a pas de deux with Leading Player and Pippin when Thomas finally gets a chance to strut his stuff, too ("On the Right Track"). In service to his character, Thomas acts tentatively in the early scenes, gradually gaining confidence and gravitas, until the boy becomes a man and the actor's face takes on a mature façade. He maintains his sweetness throughout, but inhabits the complexities of Pippin growing up through his experiences. His singing follows a similar track, becoming stronger and more assured to reflect Pippin's development. Thomas shares great chemistry with Miller, Mann and Jones. Mann is a consummate theater pro and makes it look easy. When she first appears, Jones sounds like a Disney character, but Catherine evolves and Jones ends up beautifully singing the most poignant song in the score ("I Guess I'll Miss the Man").
Speaking again of dance, to watch d'Amboise dance is like watching a master class. Her voice is a little thin in her character's one solo song ("Spread a Little Sunshine"), but she owns the stage when the singing ends and the dancing begins. Her expression is blissful as she whirls about, seemingly on autopilot. Altemus acts the perfect blend of strong and stupid as her warrior son. Boston theatergoers are witnessing the physical and emotional growth of 12-year-old Cekala (featured earlier this season in A.R.T.'s Marie Antoinette) from youngster to adolescent, visibly understanding both the joy and profundity in his role. The baker's dozen who make up the troupe of Players are all, to use Pippin's word, extraordinary, but wait until you see one particular feat by strongman Orion Griffiths.
When the Bob Fosse-directed production premiered on Broadway in 1972, Pippin was very much a product of its time. One could say that, culturally speaking, the sixties were not yet over, the Vietnam War was ongoing, and the generation gap was widening. The story of a young man's search for self had universal appeal and the show won five Tony Awards and five Drama Desk Awards, and ran for close to two thousand performances before closing in 1977. In contrast to many remnants of the seventies which have gone out of style or seem dated, Pippin's theme remains relevant, and not just for the young. Throughout life, people are constantly reinventing themselves and searching for their special purpose or wondering, "Why am I here?" These days, the theater seems to be a very good place to explore the existential question. Maybe we should all run off and join the circus; or maybe, with a little help from Pippin, we can learn to appreciate the magic of our ordinary lives.
Pippin performances through January 20, 2013, at The American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Box Office 617-547-8300 or www.amrep.org. Book by Roger O. Hirson, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz; Scenic Design, Scott Pask; Costume Design, Dominique Lemieux; Lighting Design, Kenneth Posner; Sound Design, Clive Goodwin; Orchestrations, Larry Hochman; Music Supervisor, Nadia DiGiallonardo; Music Director, Charlie Alterman; Associate Music Director, Sonny Paladino; Illusions, Paul Kieve; Associate Director/PSM, Nancy Harrington; Circus Creation, Gypsy Snider (of Les 7 Doigts de la Main); Choreography, Chet Walker (in the style of Bob Fosse); Director, Diane Paulus
Cast: Erik Altemus, Andrew Cekala, Charlotte d'Amboise, Rachel Bay Jones, Terrence Mann, Andrea Martin, Patina Miller, Matthew James Thomas; The Players: Gregory Arsenal, Lolita Costet, Colin Cunliffe, Andrew Fitch, Orion Griffiths, Viktoria Grimmy, Olga Karmansky, Bethany Moore, Stephanie Pope, Philip Rosenberg, Yannick Thomas, Molly Tynes, Anthony Wagner