In the opening number, Pippin’s Leading Player promises the audience that “we got magic to do, just for you”. And, in this new revival from Director Diane Paulus, boy, do they ever. Cleverly staged in a circus, this vibrant, imaginative, energetic production is sheer theatrical joy.
There are two layers to the show, really. The Leading Player leads an ensemble of, in this case circus, performers who are presenting the story of Pippin, son of Charlemagne. Pippin has just returned from University and is ready to begin his life. But he’s having a hard time figuring out what his purpose in life is – clearly he’s destined for great things, but in order to figure out what, he embarks on a series of trial-and-error callings. He first tries going to war to please his father, but, when he realizes that’s not for him, joins a peasants’ revolt against his father. Pippin tries and does everything, and all the while the Leading Player narrates his quest as the cast enacts, vignette-style, Pippin’s frequently humorous trials and travails.
While the players - the contortionists, strongmen, clowns and playfully exaggerated actors - that surround Pippin are larger-than-life, Pippin himself is as earnest and genuine as can be, rendering him utterly out of place. It is in this dichotomy of hyper-theatricality and realism that Roger O. Hirson (book) and Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics) have created a musical that is, with Fosse choreography, trapeze artists flying through space and big musical numbers, spectacular in every sense of the word, while simultaneously moving and relatable.
With puppy dog eyes, an emotive, honest voice, vulnerable and endearing personality, Matthew James Thomas wins us over immediately as poor Pippin. Patina Miller was out the night I saw it, but her understudy, Stephanie Pope, did a stellar job as our emcee, the Leading Player, deliciously capturing the old-school showmanship, all the while dazzling us with how effortlessly she executes the intricate choreography (the part was, afterall, originated by Ben Vereen). Andrea Martin, as Pippin’s grandmother Berthe, literally stops the show with the surprise-filled and delightful rendition/staging of the song No Time at All (“oh it’s time to start livin’/Time to take a little from this world we're given/Time to take time, cause spring will turn to fall/In just no time at all...”). Rachel Bay Jones’ Catherine, Pippin’s love interest, delivers an absolutely beautiful performance – torn between loyalty to the Leading Player and love for Pippin, she delicately walks the line between their two worlds and is somehow funny and heartbreaking all at the same time. The entire ensemble is incredibly talented, from the dignified Terence Mann as King Charles to extraordinary dancer Charlotte d’Amboise as Pippin’s plotting (but still likeable) step mother, Fastrada, to the ensemble of thirteen dancer/acrobat/contortionist/singer/dancers who make up the Players of the circus.
Choreographer Chet Walker, working in the style of Bob Fosse, keeps the nearly constant dancing precise, intricate and amazingly executed – it is certainly some of the best dancing I have seen in a very long time. Scott Pask’s circus tent set serves as the perfect playground for the show, providing endless opportunities for climbing, jumping and playing. At one point, delightfully randomly, a pair of women’s legs (yes, just the legs) cross the stage; the musical, living up to its promise of magic, is full of such surprises from illusionist Paul Kieve. Paulus, aided by her stellar cast and creative team, has done a brilliant job of clearly, and movingly, telling Pippin’s story, while immersing us in an absolutely joyous and exhilarating theatrical experience.
So start livin’ and rush to the Music Box to see this perfect production!