By: David Sheward
Pippin is the ultimate razzle-dazzle con job, but it’s a magnificently entertaining one. The story purports to advocate the joys of ordinary, workaday life, but only after stunning its audience with two and half hours of amazing theatricality. Bob Fosse, the director-choreographer of the original 1972 production, knew Roger O. Hirson’s wafer-thin book and Stephen Schwartz’s pleasant songs would not be enough to put over the slight story of a medieval prince seeking his identity. So he threw in every trick he knew to distract from the plot’s deficiencies. And it worked. Pippin ran for almost 2,000 performances, and Fosse won Tonys for his choreography and direction (the latter over Harold Prince for A Little Night Music).
Diane Paulus has the same idea for this amazing revival, previously presented at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., where she serves as artistic director. With the collaboration of Gypsy Snider of the Canadian troupe Les 7 doigts de la main and set designer Scott Pask’s big-top environment, Paulus transforms Schwartz’s simple story, first conceived as a college show when the songwriter was a student at Carnegie Tech, into a Cirque du Soleil-type spectacle. The band of players enacting Pippin’s Candide-like voyage, memorably led by Ben Vereen in the first staging, is now a tribe of circus performers who are capable of astonishing, gravity-defying feats.
Vereen’s role of Leading Player is now taken by the slinky, sexy Patina Miller, who moves like a snake escaping from Eden and ready to take as many into hell as she can gather. Miller, who made a hit two seasons ago in Sister Act, commands the stage with her flexible limbs and electric eyes. Matthew James Thomas as the titular young hero has a devil of a time keeping up with her, but, with his sunny voice and adorable demeanor, he keeps the somewhat whiny character from falling into the trap of self-pity. Terrence Mann and Charlotte d’Amboise, married offstage, wrangle and grind deftly as Pippin’s overbearing father, the Emperor Charles, and sneaky, youthful stepmother, Fastrada. Rachel Bay Jones is charming and captivating as Catherine, the lonely widow who convinces Pippin to give up his idealistic quest for fulfillment and settle down on her farm. Jones manages to create a convincing character with clear goals (land her man) amid the slick staging.
But the show is totally stolen by Andrea Martin in the cameo role of Berthe, Pippin’s spry grandmother. The part was originally played by Irene Ryan of The Beverly Hillbillies, and she stopped the show with a sing-along of Schwartz’s peppy "No Time At All." Martin goes her one better with an acrobatic routine you won’t believe. With only a few minutes of stage time, Martin conveys an unquenchable zest for life and conquers the audience with her warmth and impeccable timing. It’s a standout piece of a standout show, but don’t try to figure out what, if anything, is behind the tricks and the showmanship. Just sit back and enjoy the razzle-dazzle.
May 15, 2013
Opened April 25 for an open run. Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St., NYC. Tue 8pm, Wed 2:30pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2:30pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. $59-142. (800) 432-7250. www.telecharge.com