NEW YORK — The joys of the new production of Pippin on Broadway are boundless. The cast, led by Patina Miller as the Leading Player, is marvelous, enlivening the songs with energy and vigor. The actual production, directed by the reliable Diane Paulus, is beautifully alluring, transforming the Music Box Theatre into a psychedelic circus where anything seems possible. Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson’s musical has been given a first-rate reimagining.
The show centers around Pippin (Matthew James Thomas), a young man trying to live life outside the shadows of his cruel and powerful father, Charles (Terrence Mann). This coming-of-age tale comes to life through an interesting combination of big-top circus antics and Old-World regality where court jesters impressed the king and soldiers were sent on crusades on a moment’s notice. Everything and everyone seems whimsical, especially the Leading Player (Miller), who acts as the emcee for the proceedings.
Other notable supporting characters are Fastrada (Charlotte D’Amboise, absent the night I saw the show), who plays Charles’ love interest. Berthe (Andrea Martin, also absent) is Pippin’s grandmother, and the character offers a show-stopping solo number performed partly upside down. Rachel Bay Jones is often hilarious as Catherine, who eventually falls for Pippin.
The real winner of the cast and creative team is Gypsy Snider, who created the circus routines, and Chet Walker, the choreographer who seems inspired by Bob Fosse’s original moves for the show. When the Leading Player and her group of dancers advance the plot with catchy tunes, their moves are precise and filled with panache. It’s no wonder Miller won the Tony Award for her performance; it’s like watching a Fosse protege tear up the stage. Watch as she flexes her muscles, sucks in the air of the room and moves her limbs to the coordinated beats of the stellar orchestra. This is the finest example of Fosse-ian choreography that Broadway has seen in several years.
Much credit must be given to Paulus, whose track record on Broadway is quickly becoming legendary. The skilled director is a visionary, through and through. She sticks with the circus theme from the opening sequences to the thrilling finale, coupling Pippin’s story with truly remarkable high-flying acts. What’s most impressive is that the circus techniques are not exclusively performed by the supporting actors; many of the lead actors swing from the rafters, somehow continuing to sing while placed in seemingly dangerous positions.
Pippin is a big musical with a large ensemble, but because of the Music Box’s general intimacy, the show feels personal. If there had to be one fault with the production it’s that the directing, acting and dancing all catapult an OK show to greatness. After spending two-and-a-half hours in the company of these performers, the central story of Pippin feels somewhat secondary to the marvel of the actors’ accomplishments. Despite James Thomas’ best efforts, Pippin, in some ways, becomes the least interesting aspect of his own show. This often happens with fictional works, and it’s not an insurmountable problem. The only reason our attention is drawn away from the central figure is because the world he populates is so darn interesting and majestic.
This Pippin is just too excellent of an experience. And that’s fine by me.
By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
Book by Roger O. Hirson
Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Directed by Diane Paulus
Starring Patina Miller, Andrea Martin, Terrence Mann, Matthew James Thomas and Charlotte D’Amboise
Currently playing the Music Box Theatre at 239 W. 45th St. in Manhattan. Click here for more information.
Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes