PPAC's "Pippin": Magic to Do?

John Rubinstein and the Cast of "Pippin"
(photo: Joan Marcus)

Once upon a time, there was a bittersweet little musical with a simple story, magical charm and deliciously sinister undertones, based (very loosely) on the historical Pepin, son of Charlemagne. It was 1972, and the show was “Pippin”, with Music and Lyrics by relative newcomer Stephen Schwartz (who had just the year before written the same for the off-Broadway Godspell as well as the lyrics for Leonard Bernstein's Mass) and Book by Roger O. Hirson (with an assist from original director Bob Fosse). It garnered eleven Tony Award nominations, won five Tony Awards, and ran for almost 2,000 performances. The recent revival in 2013, by American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, MA, expanded the slight story with the inclusion of numerous circus acts, with a new extended ending (about which more later) in two acts, where the original version was written to be performed in one act without intermission. This revival went on to earn ten Tony nominations and eventually four Tony Awards. It is this longer version that is the basis for the National Tour, being presented at the Providence Performing Arts Center. Whether it's an improvement is debatable.

Pippin (Brian Flores), who could easily have settled for being prince, seeks more, specifically the meaning of life and something fulfilling. Pippin has attempted to prove his loyalty to his father King Charles (John Rubinstein) by going off to war, which he eventually sees as pointless. On his journey to understanding he meets a mysterious Leading Player (Gabrielle McClinton) who heads a performing troupe. In the song “Magic to Do”, she convinces him to fight tyranny by murdering his father the King. Meanwhile his stepmother Fastrada (Sabrina Harper) plots to put her idiot son Lewis (Erik Altemus) on the throne. Pippin begs the Leading Player to restore Charles to life, which she does. Pippin escapes into the woods where he ends up at the cottage of his exiled grandmother Berthe (Adrienne Barbeau) who encourages him to live in the rousing “No Time at All”. Pippin then meets a farm widow named Catherine (Bradley Benjamin) and her young son Theo (Ben Krieger, alternating with Jake Berman). He is urged by the troupe to finish their Finale by stepping into a fire. He decides instead to live as a simple farmer and the play, with all the theatrical trappings of sets, lighting, and costumes removed, ends. Or at least it used to. In this revision, young Theo encounters the Leading Player and her troupe and the story starts all over again, suggesting an endless cycle, which rather deflates the original choice of simplicity over spectacle.

Interestingly, the part of Pippin was originally played back in 1972 by this production's King Charles, John Rubinstein, who at 69 has lost none of his charisma and energy. Other members of that original cast included Ben Vereen, Jill Clayburgh, Leland Palmer, Ann Reinking and Irene Ryan (of Beverly Hillbillies fame). The rest of the current cast, most of whom weren't even alive at the time of the original show, are competent and apparently inexhaustible. The score remains the strongest element, from the famous opening number “Magic to Do”, to such songs as “Corner of the Sky”, “With You”, “Extra-ordinary” and the aforementioned “No Time at All”. This last number has always been a real showstopper, featuring a bouncing ball for a sing-along, with lyrics such as these:

When your best days are yester,
The rest're twice as dear.....
Oh, it's time to start livin'
Time to take a little from this world we're given
Time to take time
For spring will turn to fall
In just no time at all.

This production is directed by ART Artistic Director Diane Paulus, with Choreography by Chet Walker and Circus Creation by Gypsy Snider (co-founder of Montreal's Les 7 doigts de la main), and has been both a critical and commercial hit. With Set Design by Scott Pask, Lighting Design by Kenneth Posner and Costume Design by Dominique Lemieux, the technical creativity is remarkable.

What started out as a sort of modernized medieval morality play has ended up with more of a Cirque du Soleil feel, so it's visually awe-inspiring throughout. But there are too many circus effects and a radically altered ending. The former, while expert and entertaining, is a reminder of just how weak the Book is, and the latter of how much more effective the darker, more unsettling ending of the original was. The creation of an intermission also serves to point out how little substance there exists, with very little happening in the second act. The cast does manage to help one overlook the threadbare plot. As theater, this production depends on diversions and distractions, and thus could be said to be magical after all, though, as does Pippin himself, one might long for something more fulfilling.

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