Pippin hasn’t appeared on Broadway in 40 years, so great was the reputation of its original production. It was the Tony in Bob Fosse’s triple-crown year and it made a star of Ben Vereen. Its TV commercial (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bo4Tz-4rkvs) was a landmark in Broadway advertising and the dance number featured in that commercial—gloriously reproduced in this production—is as iconic as the kick-line finale in A Chorus Line (which was featured in its own TV commercial).
I never saw the original Broadway production of Pippin but I did have the original cast album as an impressionable 11-year-old and several years ago I rented a video of the national tour, which featured most of the original Broadway cast. So I approached this production with very high expectations (and so too, apparently, did many of my fellow audience members, who already seemed to know the cast and score).
Pippin is, at its heart, a classic coming-of-age story, except in this case, the young man coming of age happens to be the son of Charlemagne. But Pippin isn’t famous for its story so much as it’s famous for the way that story is told.
The choreography by Chet Walker (“in the style of Bob Fosse”) pays liberal homage to Fosse with all its hip swivels, shoulder rolls and jazz hands. And Stephen Schwartz’s score, which could stand on its own as a great pop album, takes on added significance when heard in the context of the play.
What’s new in this production is the addition of a company of Cirque du Soleil-type acrobats who perform throughout the show. Normally, I would take this as a sign that the director didn’t have confidence in the strength of his script. But the book by Roger O. Hirson and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz are surprisingly clever and, more importantly, Diane Paulus’s direction has that stylized, Bob Fosse wink that lets you know the cast is in on the joke.
Patina Miller effectively channels Ben Vereen in all his sassiness, Andrea Martin practically steals the show with her big number (“No Time At All”) and Matthew James, as Pippin, finds new ways to wring meaning out of such piano bar clichés as “Corner of the Sky” that almost make you forget John Rubinstein’s original. Filling out the cast are Broadway veteran Terence Mann as the King, Charlotte Damboise—flirtatious and funny in the kind of role that seems tailor-made for Christine Baranski—as the queen, and Rachel Bay Jones, who brings both humor and pathos to the love interest role originally played by Jill Clayburgh.
The chorus of dancers and acrobats deserve credit, as well. I kept thinking of the Dazzle Dancers and other neo-burlesque acts that have been performing the last few years in downtown New York clubs. The form-fitting costumes by Dominique Lemieux and circus tent set by Scott Pask complete the picture.
If I had to make one criticism, it’s that—especially after all the literal pyrotechnics that have come before—this show doesn’t end with a bang but with a whimper. But in this age where even curtain calls have been turned into their own production numbers, a Broadway musical that tries to make a serious point—and does so with great humor and great songs along the way—is to be welcomed.