Saturday, January 5, 2013

REVIEW: IT'S EXTRAORDINARY! - "Pippin" at the American Repertory Theater

Photos by Michael J. Lutch
Since closing on Broadway in 1977, Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson's musical "Pippin" seemed to have settled into a quiet infinity among academic and community theaters. Sure, professional productions of the coming-of-age fable pop up here and there, but they're typically either spare, hokey retreads or imposing conceptual takes that do little but apply uninformed anachronism to wring out some relevance. "Pippin: The Legend of Zelda!" or something equally as pointless. Audiences leave feeling Prince Pippin's own emptiness and vacancy; they want to love it, but know that something is missing. 

However, Pippin and his slithering band of players still have some theatrical magic left to do. The American Repertory Theater's hotly anticipated new revival, which opened in Cambridge, Massachusetts on Thursday night under the direction of Diane Paulus, is among the finest productions of any musical I have ever seen. This is a revival that doesn't simply rely on fans' nostalgia for a cast album, but actually resurrects its material to thrilling, awe-inspiring effect.

It was announced on Thursday that this will be the first Broadway revival of "Pippin," set to open at the Music Box Theatre in April. And just in time too. This show will inject some much needed energy and innovation onto drab old Broadway, a veritable musical theater wasteland with only the occasional life-giving oasis. On opening night, the production was met by the wide smiles of lifelong faithfuls as well as a sprinkling of novices whose familiarity with composer Stephen Schwartz begins and ends at "Wicked." But by the end of the performance, an incandescent amalgam of circus, Fosse, and the pleasure-pain throes of youth, a new generation of fans was born. Though as deferential to its cherished legacy as can be, it truly feels like an entirely new show. "Pippin" is the most wholly unique musical theatre experience in years.

Theatergoers fortunate enough to have seen the original Broadway production always remember it with remarkable clarity and renewed enthusiasm. Stephen Schwartz's unusual, jazzy score (among the few cast recordings to have been released by Motown Records, here majestically orchestrated by Larry Hochman) is, in my opinion, his best. "Magic To Do," "Corner of The Sky," and "I Guess I'll Miss The Man" are tuneful hits that yield surprising emotional impact.  Roger O. Hirson's book is a kind of comedic singularity—its humorous edge is not married to time or place, but held together by the writer's easily embraceable eccentricity and subversive observations about life and culture. And the show's tone, a slide-whistle from wacky to hopeless, was a perfect match for original director Bob Fosse's choreography of seductive bodily articulations.

Perhaps the realization came while observing the acrobatic feats of Les 7 doigts de la main, a Montreal circus that contributes death-defying stunts to the story of a young man lead by a post-college adrenaline rush to find a purpose. Or maybe it came as Matthew James Thomas' Pippin quite resourcefully manipulated a live actor's severed head in a crate—a clever and subtly brilliant staging of a familiar scene. I'm not really sure when it was, but, all at once, looking onto scenic designer Scott Pask's luxurious, mystical blue tent lit with sparkling vibrancy by Kenneth Posner, I knew that "Pippin" is the show for this moment. Why? In form, the kind of ensemble reliant trunk shows that are so popular on Broadway stages—"Peter and The Starcatcher," "Once"—are very much in the same vein as "Pippin." In substance, with more than half of recent college graduates out of work, moving from pursuit to pursuit is endlessly (and depressingly) relatable. It's cathartic both to laugh and cry with. Unlike so many shows from this era, "Pippin" feels decidedly contemporary.

While many favorite elements of "Pippin" remain in this production, as with Paulus' "Hair," you've never seen it quite like this. Paulus' most sagely decision is her collaborations with choreographer Chet Walker and Gypsy Snider of Les 7 doigts de la main. The circus concept, besides contributing aesthetic wonderment and a playful tone, makes believable sense out of the horrifying finale involving a box of fire. Paulus weaves the muscularity and scrappiness of the circus' amazing, sexy stunts perfectly with Walker's (an original "Pippin" cast member) recreation of Fosse's original choreography. At the performance's most seamless, you cannot quite distinguish a dancer from an actor from an acrobat—they are all only players, clownish and sinister.

And Paulus has assembled an ideal cast of players—the colorful characters young Pippin encounters on the search for his "corner of the sky." Veteran actors like Andrea Martin (playing grandmother Berthe) and Terrence Mann (playing disinterested dad Charlemagne) have the fresh faced earnestness of kids, so pleased to be onstage. Martin's "No Time At All," has a new, completely unexpected piece of physical staging that begins hilariously, but ends as a breathtakingly moving statement on age. Mann contributes a silly, cunning laziness to Charlemagne, a role that's usually pushed to fatherly extremes. And as his conniving wife Fastrada, working tirelessly to secure the throne for her obnoxious son Lewis (Erik Altemus), Charlotte d'Amboise flutters about with Marilyn Monroe's faux-ditziness. But her sharp and scintillating dance reveals the character's true villainous nature. An absolute revelation here is Rachel Bay Jones as Catherine, a widow who takes Pippin in and falls in love with him. She uses an adorable dweebishness and dry humor to manipulate her guy. When she finally reaches "I Guess I'll Miss The Man," which she sings in near complete darkness, the actress devastates with every glance.

Pippin often is not the star of "Pippin," losing the marquee billing to the Leading Player. But Matthew James Thomas, who came to the show directly from "Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark," plays a more fleshed out prince (physique-wise, as well) than the usual Pippin, decked out in lavender hipster sweaters, black jeans and boots (flattering costumes by Dominique Lemieux). He has sincerity in spades—you believe every word he speaks and sings—but withholds a terrifying darkness, not unlike the production as a whole. Trapped by an enclave of bodies after nearly succumbing to the siren call of the fiery "Finale," Thomas screams in such a way that ensures me, eyes welled with tears, of the truthfulness of this production and this extremely gifted performer. I could write an entire essay on his pole-climbing abilities alone.

The Leading Player has been played by women often in professional productions since its early days, and the right actress can make a blistering impact. More so than a man, she has the capacity to embody characteristics of every person onstageFastrada's ambition, Charlemagne's aloofness, Lewis' vanity, the turbulence of war and the smolder of fleshencapsulated into this maniacal puppeteer who helps and hurts on our journey through life. Patina Miller (Tony nominee for "Sister Act") has two striking moments that define her character. Siting on a trapeze swing, hovering over the entire cast as they sing "Magic To Do," laughing and completely in control with big, glistening eyes. And, during the finale, after she has lost all control of "Pippin," she turns away from the audience to regain composure, having lost purpose herself. Miller's dance is sensual and effortless, and her singing, charismatic. But it's her Leading Player's temperment that intrigues and darkens gloriously.

The American Repertory Theater's "Pippin" retains the licensed ending of the musical, which was not seen on Broadway in the seventies. Here, Pippin finds happiness with girlfriend Catherine, and the cycle of finding purpose starts all over again with Theo, her young son (the viability of this ending is probably why a near teenaged Theo, Andrew Cekala, has been cast). I've never liked this ending, preferring the "trapped but happy" alternative of the Fosse days. But Paulus' production, with its deep descents into darkness and spirited, high-octane excitement, made me reconsider the impact of the final moment. It really works nicely here, and reflects a creative team that's grown up, learned a lot about the true meaning of this last scene, and watched their own Theos pick up where they left off. That newfound maturity coupled with the spontaneity and danger of the circus stunts makes for a perfect revival of a show that, after forty years, has got a second wind. —Johnny Oleksinski

At the American Repertory Theater, Loeb Center for the Performing Arts, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA. Through January 20.