Sunday, April 28, 2013

Pippin: You Can Go Home Again

 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 ( 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 clich├ęs 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.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Bette Midler: I'll See This First

 When I first read that Bette Midler was going to be playing legendary super-agent Sue Mengers on Broadway, I practically shrieked with delight. I thought, “This is the role she was born to play.”
And now, having seen “I’ll Eat You Last,” I can definitively tell you: This is the role she was born to play.
The curtain opens on a pitch-perfect recreation of Ms. Mengers’ Beverly Hills mansion, decorated in a style that I would call chic but comfortable. The Divine Miss M is stretched out on the couch in a sparkly blue caftan and we are treated to 90 minutes of dish about your favorite stars of the late 70s/early 80s--Diana Ross, Steve McQueen, Julie Harris, Bob Evans, Ali MacGraw, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, and, of course, Barbra Streisand--all delivered in Midler’s trademark Sophie Tucker style.
In addition to being a biography of Sue Mengers, this is a primer on How to Succeed in Hollywood, delivered by the ultimate insider. We travel through the ups and downs of Mengers’ life and career, starting with her humble beginnings as a refugee from Nazi Germany in upstate New York, to her early days in New York City, to her ultimate move to Los Angeles. Her Waterloo was a long-forgotten 1982 film called “All Night Long,” which was directed by her husband and in which she convinced two of her clients, Barbra Streisand and Gene Hackman, to star. A long monologue towards the end of the show about a bullfight she attended in Mexico is an obvious metaphor for the vicissitudes of show business.
I only had two minor complaints about the performance I saw.
First of all, Miss Midler didn’t know all her lines and called out to her prompter several times. Now, granted, this was only the second preview and she’s on stage by herself for 90 minutes (which must be extremely difficult), but people are paying up to $150 for tickets--and that doesn’t include Premium Seating!
Secondly, there are two moments when she calls someone up from the audience to join her on stage and I thought, “Why? Does the playwright not trust his material or is he just pandering to the Broadway audience of celebrity-worshipping tourists?”
Nevertheless, Miss Midler delivers a stellar performance, and the script, by Josh Logan, is funny and clever.
Once Midler learns her lines, she should walk away with a Tony nomination if not an actual Tony.