Four decades after its first Broadway incarnation, Pippin's peppy, pop-inflected score has popped up again on Broadway, fresh and flush with energy. Stephen Schwartz's songsand the characters themselvesare a mix of the young and the restless/yearning and learning set against the more jaded and jarring. The contrasts suit the piece, now set in a circus. Sarcasm sits side by side with earnestness and each serves as relief for the other when overdosing on sugar or slickness might loom.
Musically, things sound kinetic and modern without a cavalier-like overhaul. Orchestrations (Larry Hochman) and arrangements (Nadia DiGiallonardo) bring new colors and accents to the material, which is conducted by the 12-member band's keyboardist Charlie Alterman, who did the same honors for the recent revival of Schwartz's Godspell. Both the old blueprints and the new fingerprints can be examined on their own on four bonus backing tracks of instrumentals that invite you to "Sing Along with the Pippin Orchestra" (and all the lyrics are in a booklet to make it that much easier to do so). As instrumental entertainment, they aren't generally very satisfying: the thickly-outlined building blocks feel rather clunky and didactic. The exception comes in much of "Extraordinary," which has more zing, after the early part with its stop/start series of gaps of silence. The prelude to "Corner of the Sky" and the rollicking romp of an "Entr'Acte" and the madhouse-esque instrumental opening to the "Finale" sparkle.
Although out-and-out innocence is tempered with some tongue-in-cheek reality checks, the likeable Matthew James Thomas in the title role comes across as an endearing naïf discovering life and love. He makes what might feel tired come to life, with involved and committed phrasing. Even the restlessness and determination in "Corner of the Sky"a classic character-establishing "This is what I want" songbecomes invigorating rather than cliché; and his "Morning Glow" does glow with sweetness, getting an extra kick of revved-up zing from the ensemble. Things occasionally veer toward the edge of sappiness, but to my ears it doesn't come across as disingenuous. Rachel Bay Jones is a pleasure as his love interest Catherine, with her tracks being some of the most rewarding of all. The warm and earthy, disarming qualities in her singing makes the old feel original and newly experienced. There's an openness to her singing and an honesty which serve the material especially well, making her character seem more interested and rounded.
Sister Act's leading lady Patina Miller is a rather different kind of Leading Player than the mercurial Ben Vereen. Whereas he was mesmerizingly menacing and seductive, she projects more feistiness and brashness. Thus, alas, her ringmaster of ceremonies has less variety in her heavy share of the singing, making the different songs seem, well, not quite different enough. It seems to be all about big and bright and bold rather than shades of light and darkness and slyness. But, whereas it could have become strident, there are sections where this kind of treatment is quite pleasing to the ear, with an earth-mother-like quality informing the phrasing.
Charlotte d'Amboise does a nice, if restrained, job with her number, "Spread a Little Sunshine," the wink less obvious than one might expect or want. But it's enjoyable. Terrence Mann's King bites into his pure "pro" appearance with wicked wit in "War Is a Science," making me wish his character had more to do on disc. Andrea Martin has won acclaim and a cluster of awards for her role as the grandmother, having a field day with the carpe diem mantra about life going by in "No Time at All." I may be in the minority, but to me, on disc, she comes off cartoon-like generically chipper when one wants quirky, irrepressible and a bit inspiring. (I'd take any of those qualities, but find a lack.) The decision to corral hundreds of "fans" and record them as the sing-along chorus on this number is more like a regimented army ("1-2-3-4" she cues them) than the mass appeal of an audience jumping into the spirit. The perky Martin sounds youngish to me, though she is actually the same age as the character states she is in the lyric (66).
The "Finale" is rather anticlimactic in drama, with the ensemble sounding rushed and perfunctory in their "Think about your life" urgings and Thomas's solo section misses the mark somewhat on pleading and regret.
Liner notes by director Diane Paulus and Schwartz himself note the desire to bring a sense of spunk and newness to Pippin. The songwriter mentions how he and bookwriter Roger O. Hirson have made tweaks over the years. Some of the most apparent here, in comparing the original cast album with the new one, come in two numbers. "War Is a Science" has a whole swath of different verses, losing some other sections. Now, when talking about the enemy "on the hill," its rhyming line for "hill" with "We've got to bring them down here, and this is how we will" becomes "So we've got to draw them down here where they're easier to kill." (Both changes add specificity and sharpness.) New lines in that number rhyme "blood that you splatter'll" with "damage that's collateral." I miss the references to mundane tasks of taking care of a pig and turtle in "Extraordinary" where instead of the rhymed "moat" and "goat" offering rhymed annoyances of, respectively, "leaking" and "shrieking," now it's "Floorboards are squeaking and the doorboards are leaking." But it is helpfully to the point here to have the moral:
As for Pippin the character and Pippin the show, they've got plenty of life in 'em despite some fumbles and jumblesbecause it's lively and not all the same and safe. Nice to have another take on this popular score. Underneath the pomp and pop and the Big Top of the circus setting, there are universal truths and desires still bubbling and bursting through.