Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 25, 2013
Pippin book by Robert O. Hirson. Music & lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Directed by Diane Paulus. Choreography by Chet Walker, in the style of Bob Fosse. Circus creation by Gypsy Snider of Les 7 Doigts de la Main. Orchestrations by Larry Hochman. Scenic design by Scott Pask. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Costume design by Dominique Lemieux. Sound design by Jonathan Deans & Garth Helm. Illusions by Paul Kieve. Fire effects by Chic Silber. Flying effects by ZFX, Inc. Cast: Matthew James Thomas, Patina Miller, Terrence Mann, Charlotte d'Amboise, Rachel Bay Jones, and Andrea Martin, Erik Altemus, Grégory Arsenal, Andrew Cekala, Lolita Costet, Colin Cunliffe, Andrew Fitch, Orion Griffiths, Viktoria Grimmy, Sabrina Harper, Olga Karmansky, Bethany Moore, Brad Musgrove, Stephanie Pope, Philip Rosenberg, Yannick Thomas, Molly Tynes, Anthony Wayne, Ashton Woerz.
The occasion for this all-too-brief theatrical renaissance is a simple one. Pippin (Matthew James Thomas), the son of Charles the Great (aka Charlemagne), is embarking on the common young man's quest of personal discovery. Confused after not having found himself on the battlefield, he approaches his grandmother, Berthe (Martin), for advice, and she exhorts him to live and love every moment to the fullest by singing "No Time at All," about the myriad lessons she's learned over 66 years of having seen and done everything.
The love, grace, and verve with which Martin sells the bouncy number (one of the most gloriously addictive Schwartz has composed for this, or any, show) would always make it a standout. But the intimate gab session becomes a world-spanning anthem once Martin encourages the audience to lift their voices and join her in encouraging Pippin (but only on the chorus, not the verses). Through a combination of cast-iron will, wry likability, and good-old-fashioned star determination, Martin whips up the house into such a frenzy that you wonder how long it will be until those around you burst from the theatre and storm the streets in fits of radioactive, hyper–Auntie Mame hedonism.
Paulus, who was most recently represented on Broadway last season with the arid revival of Porgy and Bess (and prior to that by the revival of Hair), has partnered with the Montreal circus troupe Les 7 doigts de la main to move the action underneath a literal big top. Because Bob Fosse conceived, directed, and choreographed the original production as a demented and deconstructed commedia dell'arte tribute, with an omniscient band of street entertainers from which Pippin's world erupts that's headed by an enigmatic figure referred to by the script only as the "Leading Player," Paulus's interpretation is hardly unreasonable.
But what's revealed by extant video evidence, both of the 1972 incarnation and its reportedly (relatively) faithful 1981 taping, is that Fosse never let his concept escape from him or exsanguinate itself. Hirson's book and Schwartz's infectious but largely empty score break so little new ground on their own that the show requires additional girding merely to support itself. Fosse provided that with his signature dance moves and their associated attitude. But no matter how wild the proceedings — and, when Pippin is learning first-hand the violent truths of war or the potentially more devastating realities of sex, the proscenium can barely contain them — he kept the story and its message critical of existence's excesses tightly focused on the people communicating it.
Unfortunately, Paulus, circus creator Gypsy Snider, and choreographer Chet Walker (working "in the style of" Fosse, with Michael Bennett ornamentation) put the event-within-the-event first, and thus stop you from ever relating to, or even recognizing, most of what's unfolding onstage. The design is certainly adventurous, with scenic designer Scott Pask, costume designer Dominique Lemieux, and lighting designer Kenneth Posner sparing no sparkle, spangle, or hue in bringing the locale to life. But the curtain raiser, "Magic to Do," and the entr'acte are staged as chaotic three-ring extravaganzas in which the likes of juggling, unicycles, hula-hoops, and other wonders overwhelm the numbers' invocational necessity. And the rest of Pippin's journey is similarly punctuated with cirque-style talent-show acrobatics that draw you in every direction except closer to the work itself.
So distracting and distancing is all this that when responsibility and domesticity invade the show in Act II, though Paulus and her collaborators veer much closer toward the correct direction, they can't drive back onto the road in time. After a listless "Extraordinary," set in a bewilderingly cute Sesame Street–like barnyard, the final scenes, in which Pippin meets his soon-to-be love Catherine (Rachel Bay Jones) and her son Theo (Andrew Cekala and Ashton Woerz alternate in the part), are too calculating and cool to legitimately derive from the fire-breathing festivities that precede them.
Much of this could be partially forgiven if the performances were properly cohesive. But just as the direction is forever at war with the script and score, so too do none of the actors occupy the same place at the same time. Because the gifted men and women of the ensemble generally pay attention only to their specialty acts, you might not expect them to cohere into a unified whole (and they don't). But the principals should (and they don't).
Yes, there's Martin's Catskills evocation. Add to that Terrence Mann's Charles, a doddering dell'arte archetype with too little dodder. His wife and Pippin's scheming step-mother, Fastrada, is embodied by Charlotte d'Amboise as a traditional and impenetrable Broadway sexpot. Fastrada's son and Pippin's competitor for the throne, Lewis, is all hollow swashbuckle in Erik Altemus's portrayal. Jones tackles Catherine as though she's the angsty heroine of a cable TV series. And Thomas is pure Eugene O'Neill moper, thoroughly naturalistic, unavoidably complex, and completely wrong given what surrounds him.
Most emblematic of the whole experience is Patina Miller. Last seen on the Main Stem belting and mugging her way through Sister Act, she has transformed the beguiling Leading Player (created by Ben Vereen) into a demonic manifestation of everything that's wrong with both the universe and Broadway. Astringent and charmless, she robotically prances through her dances, exaggerates every syllable of her barked lines and lyrics as if she's articulating to Oregon, and constantly maintains a maniacal grin that makes it look like her face became paralyzed while she was chomping an apple. One could argue that she's demonstrating the molded-plastic promises of the debauched life Pippin is pursuing, but no good advertisement contains that little likability or that much shellacked artifice.
Everything else about the evening is proudly, self-consciously artificial, and if not for Martin and "No Time At All" it would be totally heartless as well. It is worth mentioning, however, that Paulus refuses to let even that scene stand on its own. As it approaches his climax, Martin is pulled up into a trapeze and guided through some death- and gravity-defying moves that are ostensibly intended to prove that age is no barrier to either daring or flexibility, but instead verifies this production's unwillingness to trust gifted artists to stop shows for themselves. That's the most dispiriting of all the lessons this Pippin tries to teach.