I knew I was in for a treat from the first moment of Pippin, when a sexy silhouette of a certain pair of hands appeared, along with a sultry invitation to, “join us.” The revival of this musical, currently in performances at the Music Box Theatre, is a cumulative theatrical treat – sweet and savory, with just the right amount of salty.
Directed by Diane Paulus, Pippin, with a score by Stephen Schwartz’s and a book by Roger O. Hirson, tells the story of a young man eagerly and earnestly searching for meaning in his life. He is, he says, in pursuit of something “completely fulfilling.” While doing so, he tries his hand at war, sex, political revolution and everyday home life, but nothing feels exactly right.
I personally have always found Pippin to be a weak musical, feeling impatience with the never-satisfied protagonist who came across to me as more of a whining brat than a noble hero. But this production’s theatricality is enhanced with extraordinary acrobatic feats, and its tongue is planted firmly, and refreshingly, in its cheek at certain moments. The result is a thoroughly entertaining and satisfying show that, even after clocking in at two and a half hours, left me wanting more.
Pippin is narrated by a leading player (played with sultry mischief by an excellent Patina Miller) and a company of performers who promise us they have “magic to do.” In this production, the company is a troupe of circus performers who perform wondrous acrobatics throughout the show. Staged on Scott Pasek’s tattered circus-themed set, with Kenneth Posner’s eerie lighting and clad in Dominique Lemieux’s sexy costumes, they are worked seamlessly into the story. And they more than capably perform Chet Walker’s suggestive and jazzy choreography, which is credited “in the style of Fosse,” and depicts the brutality of both war and sex, as well as the ideas of temptation and desperation that permeate Pippin’s life. (Gypsy Snider, of the French-Canadian company Les 7 Doigts de la Main, is credited with “circus creation” in this production.)
The heart of Pippin rests with the Leading Player, and Miller easily fills the tall, sexy, high-heeled boots of the role. She is sultry and scary at the same time; strutting the stage with a Cheshire Cat-like grin, she tempts and taunts Pippin throughout his journey. And oh, can she dance; leading the “Glory” number that depicts the war and guiding Pippin that he’s “on the right track,” Miller steps into a role immortalized by Ben Vereen in the original production and makes it her own.
Matthew James Thomas plays the title role, giving it a youthful innocence and eagerness. His boy-band like voice suits the role well, and he depicts the emotional and intellectual journey that the young man embarks on. Terrence Mann is hilarious as Pippin’s father Charlamange, playing the part as a masculine and powerful buffoon. Charlotte D’Amboise is clearly having a great time as Charlemagne’s scheming wife, Fastrada, and her dance solo in the ironic song “Spread a Little Sunshine” is a joy to watch. (I especially enjoyed the effect of her singing about “spreading a little sunshine” while throwing knives at her husband.) And Andrea Martin gives a sensational performance as Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother, literally stopping the show in the first act. Her warmth and heart, as well as her commanding presence of the stage, are unforgettable.
The only principal performance I did not love was Rachel Bay Jones’ turn as Catherine, the widow Pippin meets and eventually falls in love with. Jones has a beautiful voice and is entertaining to watch, but she plays the role as an absent-minded airhead, breathing heavily between almost every word she spoke. While it does add some comedy to the show, I didn’t understand why it was necessary to play the role in that manner, nor did I enjoy the lyrics of “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man,” which stated the only reason she wanted Pippin was that he was the only man who had come along in a while. But she and Thomas share a warm chemistry and their duet, “Love Song” is very sweet.
The story of Pippin is a bittersweet one, as are all stories of growing up and, at times, giving up. The musical is a coming of age story, and Pippin’s acceptance of the fact that life is never going to be completely fulfilling all the time is a bit melancholy. Seeing this message portrayed in a musical theater production, where fantasy and escape are the name of the game, is a bit jarring. But the show does end on a note of hope – and mystery – and, as the Leading Player declares, glory, after all. And glory is the real name of the game because it is exactly what this production of Pippin has achieved.