Also see Sharon's review of A New Brain
If they ever decide to make a musical out of Spider-Man, the first person they should call is Michael Arden. Besides bearing a superficial resemblance to Tobey Maguire, Arden shows in his characterization of Pippin many of the same qualities that made Maguire’s superhero box office gold. Arden’s Pippin is all about teenage angst. As son of the king (Charlemagne), Pippin knows he’s destined for extraordinary things, but he doesn’t know what they are. Pippin aches to find his place in the world, and Arden plays him with a doe-eyed eagerness and fundamental decency that make him downright irresistible. And he can sing.
Pippin’s show-within-a-show framework requires Arden not just to play Pippin, but to play a member of the audience recruited to play Pippin. When Arden is first pulled to the stage, he reads his lines with the mock stage fright of a theatrical civilian. He carries the awkwardness into his first song, Stephen Schwartz’s lovely anthem, “Corner of the Sky.” As he comes to the end of the first verse, Arden is still playing the fish-out-of-water audience member, and you start thinking he’d better start singing soon because he is wasting notes. And then he lets the hint of true note escape, and it’s chill-inducing. From there, Arden never looks back. He makes the songs his own - sometimes going high and tender, other times using a lower, more pop-inspired voice. And just when you think you’ve got him figured out, at the very end of the show, he suggests that he’s capable of much more than what you’ve just heard.
Reprise’s production of Pippin owes much to the show’s Broadway director and choreographer, Bob Fosse. Alex Jaeger’s costumes are in the Fosse-esque tradition, right down to the signature bowler hat. Jaeger has dressed each member of the ensemble of Players in an outfit which is unique, black and extremely revealing. It’s as though he took the costume designs for Chicago and decided to sex them up. Choreographer Dan Mojica also worked very obviously within Fosse’s vocabulary. In some cases, his choreography comes off as a bit too ambitious for the production - the ensemble frequently lacks synchronization. Because of Pippin’s concept of itinerant players putting on a show, a certain degree of informality is acceptable. But sometimes the ensemble slips below simple casualness, such as when a hat gets very noticeably dropped during a key dance sequence. More than that, though, without perfect synchronization, the ensemble lacks the sleek sexuality that is a hallmark of Fosse’s style. The lack of crispness in the dance combines with the overtly sexual costumes to create a feel that is downright dirty, and not just a little malevolent.
There’s no doubt that a certain amount of darkness swirling around the Players is an intentional, even integral, part of Pippin. But it may be overemphasized in this production. Several of Schwartz’s songs are light and friendly, and the juxtaposition of such aggressively sinister Players with even these playful numbers doesn’t do anyone any favors. Sam Harris, as the Leading Player, does not help to lighten things. When ordering other Players around, he is a harsh taskmaster, and at times even cruel. But Harris fails to instill the Leading Player with the necessary degree of charisma to balance things out. With enough magnetism, even the Devil can seem enticing. Without it, the Leading Player inspires only wariness.
On the plus side, Harris sure can sing, and carrying some of the show’s biggest songs is a large part of the Leading Player’s job. Harris puts his clear, powerful voice to good use; he even manages to add a little grit for a surprisingly good rendition of “Glory.” He does less well with Mojica’s choreography. He is clearly capable of following direction, and he hits every Fosse-pose and pelvis shake right on cue. But there’s nothing organic about his movement; he lacks that natural quality that marks the difference between a dancer and a mimic. Worse, during one song, “Simple Joys,” Harris’ attempts to keep up with the frenetic pace of the choreography render him somewhat breathless. Uninspired dancing isn’t a crime, but sacrificing Harris’ singing in exchange for extra dancing is a fool’s bargain.
Between the leads and the Players, the company is peopled with several capable performers; they each have a song or two, and make the most of them. Conrad John Schuck lends his booming voice to Charlemagne, creating a self-centered, slightly despotic, oddly likeable ruler. Luba Mason is delightfully wicked as Pippin’s stepmother, a woman way too interested in her son’s advancement (and also way too interested in her son). Reprise has finally found the perfect role for Mimi Hines in Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother. She gives a great rendition of the crowd-pleasing “No Time At All,” with strong voice and comic wisdom. Rounding it all out is Jean Louisa Kelly, who, as the widow Catherine, pretty much carries the second act with Arden. Kelly sings with an easy confidence, and she gives Catherine a warmth that is noticeably absent from much of the rest of the show.
The resulting production is clearly a mixed bag. Arden’s Pippin is stellar, and the rest of the company, even at its worst, sings the show solidly. But the overall feel of the production is too aggressive, and very nearly misplaces its heart entirely.
Pippin runs at the Freud Playhoue at UCLA through February 6, 2005. For tickets and information, see www.reprise.org.
Reprise! Broadway’s Best -- Marcia Seligson, Producing Artistic Director; Jim Gardia, Managing Director -- presents Pippin. Book by Roger O. Hirson. Music & Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Scenic Design Bradley Kaye; Costume Design Alex Jaeger; Lighting Design Tom Ruzika; Sound Design Philip G. Allen; Associate Music Director Lisa LeMay; Music Coordinator Joe Soldo; Orchestrations Ralph Burns; Technical Director Peter Falco; Casting Director Bruce H. Newberg, C.S.A.; Production Stage Manager Ronn Goswick; Press Representative David Elzer/Demand PR; Company Manager Danny Feldman; General Manager Kelly Estrella. Produced by Marcia Seligson; Music Direction by Gerald Sternbach; Choreographed by Dan Mojica; Directed by Gordon Hunt.