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Paulus’s ‘Pippin’ Is A Pip — Till It Plops

Patina Miller as the Leading Player in "Pippin." (Michael J. Lutch)

Patina Miller as the Leading Player in “Pippin.” (Michael J. Lutch)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — I went to a musical and a carnival broke out.

Diane Paulus certainly knows how to breathe life into a musical. “Hair” and “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” both benefitted from the energy she brought to the source material. So does the first act of “Pippin,” which opened at the American Repertory Theater Thursday night after almost a month of previews (and runs through Jan. 20). But I doubt there’s a play doctor or musical medic alive who can save the wayward second act.

Philip Rosenberg and Viktoria Grimmy. (Photo, Kevin H. Lin)

Philip Rosenberg and Viktoria Grimmy. (Photo, Kevin H. Lin)

I’m getting about 40 years ahead of myself. “Pippin” began life in 1972, a collaboration between Stephen Schwartz, who wrote the music and lyrics; Roger O. Hirson, who wrote the book; and Bob Fosse, the director and choreographer. It tells the story about the son of Charlemagne, a young man in quest of an extraordinary life. The original had a successful run on Broadway before becoming a favorite of school and community theater productions that watered it down.

Paulus pumps it up, with the help of amazing acrobatics choreographed by Gypsy Snider of Les 7 Doigts de la Main, who has the cast jumping through hoops, shimmying up poles, and gyrating their bodies in ways that seem impossible and might even be illegal in certain American counties. The band of storytellers has been replaced by circus troupers, who begin the show with a spectacular show of their own, the circus folk even spelling out “Pippin” before himself jumps through a hoop to begin the story in earnest.

Here’s Paulus talking about the production:

The Pippin actor, Matthew James Thomas, is no stranger to circus-style antics, having starred as the late Peter Parker in the original production of “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark.” He’ll be getting another chance at the Great White Way, apparently, as that’s where “Pippin” is headed.

That the house Robert Brustein built is even staging “Pippin” is a bit of shock and awe for the Boston community. Personally, I think every artistic director is entitled to his or her sensibility so let’s stick with “Pippin,” which isn’t the frothy musical it’s cracked down to be, anyway.

It was born in the miasma of the ‘60s – which were really 1965 to 1975 – and Pippin dutifully tries out war, sex, and political rebellion in the first act as a way of testing his extraordinariness before moving on to political compromise, ordinary life and – we won’t say what else – in the second.

Perhaps you begin to see the problem. His three first-act stages are innately theatrical and Paulus and company bring a theatricality to the show that threatens to blow the top off the Loeb Center. Make that the big top, because the stage has been configured to look like one. The second act brings up that old problem – how do you make boredom theatrical? Unless you’re Samuel Beckett, but that’s the old ART.

The women get all the great solos. Andrea Martin puts on a display that can’t be described.

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself again. It’s not only those acrobatics that make the first act match the extraordinariness of Pippin’s journey. First of all, Pippin is perhaps the least interesting character in Pippin. It’s the women who surround him who get all the great solos, starting with Patina Miller as the Leading Player or emcee, the part for which Ben Vereen seemed to own and for which he won a Tony. Whether you think the gender switch works might depend on your gender preference.

Me, I’m not complaining. Miller is an electric presence in a role reminiscent of Fosse’s “Cabaret,” though if Joel Grey ever moved his hips like Miller somebody would have called 911. The non-circus choreography is done by Chet Walker, a dancer in the original “Pippin” and a co-creator of “Fosse.” His work is in the style of Fosse, though I prefer Walker’s technique. It’s sensual as well as sexual and a lot less glib. Miller’s great gospel-induced solo, “Glory,” captures the folly of Pippin’s glorification of war – with some jaw-dropping stagecraft by Paulus in the background.

Another Fosse veteran, Charlotte d’Amboise, has lost very little in middle age. As Fastrada, Pippin’s stepmother, she gives him the old song and dance in “Spread a Little Sunshine” not only with Walker’s trademark sensuality but with large dollops of her own trademark elegance and humor. The whole cast, in fact, is excellent, including our old friend, Stephanie Pope, from the North Shore Music Theatre.

But they all have to take a back seat to Andrea Martin, a frequent visitor to the Huntington under Nicholas Martin’s stewardship, as Pippin’s grandmother, Berthe. She puts on a display in “No Time at All,” about living life to the max that can’t be described. Actually it can, but the producers have asked us not to and they’re correct in doing so.

Charlotte d'Amboise as Fastrada. (Michael J. Lutch)

Charlotte d’Amboise as Fastrada. (Michael J. Lutch)

The revolution comes after that and then intermission. So during the break let me just say that I’m not a big fan of Stephen Schwartz, who wrote the music and lyrics. He worked with Leonard Bernstein on “Mass,” writing some of the lyrics and “Pippin” has moments that recall both “Mass” and “Candide.” (How about taking those on, Diane Paulus? “Candide” has yet to have a really convincing production, even Mary Zimmerman’s at the Huntington.) Schwartz is a good lyricist, but his music is Lenny light, pleasant enough but rarely taking the leap to making the work extraordinary, to use Pippin’s terminology.

Which takes us to Act II. Yes, I’m afraid we have to go there and you’ll stick around too, hoping for a return of that first-act magic. Unfortunately, the point of Act II is that life isn’t a cabaret, old chum, and that the search for the extraordinary is doomed. Even the grand finale is a dud, and planned to be that way.

There is another excellent solo, by Rachel Bay Jones as the love interest, Catherine, but everything else is pretty deadening except for the epiphany by Theo, Catherine’s son, which I also won’t reveal. Even Miller stops moving and shaking, and singing. The meanspiritedness of her character embodies the dour nature of the act.

Not every musical has to leave you singing in the rain, obviously, but “Pippin” simply loses all its steam and the creators muddle their message. Life should be lived to the max. No it shouldn’t. Yes it should. No it shouldn’t. Well, maybe when you’re young.

True, we all have a version of this debate ourselves, but I think we go to the theater to get rid of that noise and to either make sense of the chatter or to be entertained. Act II doesn’t do much of either.

So, “Pippin,” I’m glad to have made your acquaintance after all these years, but I’m not sure I missed all that much. The real star of this show is Paulus and what she brings to it. But as far as that second act goes, Pippin, get a life.

Ben Vereen’s version of “Glory” from the original production:

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  • musetta11m

    Enjoyed the second act more than you did, but basically agree. Lovely write-up (and spoiler-free, too). Thanks, Ed.

  • Dave Seaman

    I think it has to do with unsdersstandingh what “Pippin’ is about. Firstly the role of THe Leadxing Player cannot and MUST NOT be played by a woman, by multiple people. This character- unnamed- is akin to Shirley Jackson’s Daemon. He is the DEvil hims3elf which is why., as he loses during the finale of the show, The Leading Player begins tyo remove all of the “Magic.” This is a musical about Good verses Evil. it is not about eh se4arch for meaning in ;life and it is not about the stages of growing up. Good verses ev il and not only did the direxctor miss the4 poi t (and most of them do) but so did the critic.

    “Pippin”, by itself, could be re-writtern or adapted to make it more appropriate to 2013; I’d love to see the leading Player as a televangelist or a Tea party blue suited man with an American Flag on his lapel. Ben Verteen was perfect because he was a triple threat and- this is most key- he looked different than everyone else in the company. And the storytellers in his musical were all there to help manipulate Pippin into turning his soul over to the bad guys. In 1972 it was the the War loving, Republicans and products of the second world war verses those baby boomers who were part of a Lottery to decide if they would life or die. (“The army of the enemy is stationed on the hill and we’ve got to bring them down here and this is how we will”) The reason act II doesn;t work is because the Leading player must be unveiled as Evil, the Daemon, Satan and his rage about losing must leave Pippin, Catherin and Theo (didn;t ANY of you consider the fact that the little boys name is THEO??) on an empoty stage without costume and no orchestration. There is no longer “Magic To Do.”
    If the Leading Player is a woman this is harder to do. It would be like doing “Godspell” or “Jesus Christ Superstar” and casting Idina Menzel to play Christ. Aside from that, the entire score requires re-writing because even if the woman playing Vereen’s part, the tesitura is meant to settle high in the male voice- not in full head voice if sung as written, or in deep chest voice if she is singing 8vb. The point of the vocal score is that much of the leading players vocal lines need to circle around his break. i’m certain that A.R.T. didn;t do this because the duets with Pippin
    (the only person with whom the L.P. interacts if you still are still questioning my thesis about this musical) would place Pippins all-too innocent voice in an unsuitable range.
    I could’ve helped fix this productyion, but the Leading Player would have been upset about being fired and replaced by a man who is very different than the players; and the circus motif is fine but when stripped away, the stehnch of brimstone needs to seep out at the audience.
    Once again, I am amazed that a theatre critic needs no experience in theatre, to say nothing of writing.I’ve worked inb theatre for 35 years and have been a writer since 2000 upon completion of my PhD. Any typos that appear here are result of Guillain Barre syndrome. But what is clear to me is that if a production of Pippin works ONLY in the fist act then it missed the point and doesn;t work at all and Hirson and Schwartz would weep from their reserved seats in the spotlight. fossee is dead so the gtransformation of this very dated musical is lost to him, but it is just as dated as WAtergate, Kent State University, Dalton Trumbo and Hair.

  • LB

    Agree, still Pippin is amazing. Andrea Martin – phenomenal. The 2nd act does feel like it comes to a screeching halt. I imagine that is, at least in part, intentional … ordinary life juxtaposed with ‘extraordinary’ adventure. The transition will likely feel smoother when Pippin officially opens on Broadway, April 25th, at the Music Box Theatre. I hope that I have the chance to see it again.

    To the point of authenticity:

    “PIPPIN’s original composer and librettist are very much alive – and involved in reimagining this major new production. Both Schwartz (of Godspell and Wicked fame) and Hirson have been attending run-throughs and giving notes. They have also had a hand in helping with rewrites … Before casting I asked Stephen (Schwartz) about the Leading Player,” Paulus explains. “He said that the Leading Player can be anyone. He or she just needs to be very different from Pippin.”

    Excerpt from:

    http://broadwayworld.com/article/BWW-INTERVIEW-Circus-Gypsy-Takes-PIPPIN-to-New-Heights-at-ART-20130102

  • Joe D

    I saw the show last night and absolutely loved it. I think that the criticisms above are more about the show itself than the production, which is artfully done and incredibly ambitious. If you like the show, you’ll love this production. As for the show, Pippin is about the search for life’s meaning and getting comfortable in one’s own skin, which makes themes like living life to the fullest and finding your own purpose completely compatible with serenity and love. Maybe a stretch, but that’s the whole point of the show. If we had the meaning of life figured out, we would hardly need all the pondering of it.

  • extraordinarygilr

    “The dour nature…”
    “Loses its steam…”
    “The grand finale is a dud…”
    You have got to be kidding me. I swear, this play has actually changed my life. It’s right there on my list of Best Things That Ever Happened To Me. I cried, I laughed, I sang along…what more do you want from a play?! Everything was amazing: the choreography, the acting, the dancing, the singing, the circus tricks…EVERYTHING. This play is, well, EXTRAORDINARY.

  • wordsvoices

    I think the age at which you see Pippin makes a difference. I saw the original show in 1972 — at 17, with the world at my feet, headed to be a theatre major at Brown and do all those Extraordinary things. The Vietnam War was on every young person’s mind. PIPPIN ’72 said everything I understood and believed in, and I adored it. Now, 40 years later, seeing the costumes taken from wardress to Cirque-dress, and with the understanding that comes with 40 years of a rough-and-tumble life that looks nothing like I thought it would then — the musical rings hollow. It is not what the world is like anymore. It’s dated. And we don’t need to be reminded that all our dreams are nothing, in the end.

    • Zeala

      Agreed…age and time at play here, one’s personal experience with this play very much affects our view of this revival. I was about to post then saw your comments. I hated it, had to walk out eventually (my first time to ever do so on Broadway- in 35 years), because I wanted to retain the memory and greatness of the original. If you were a TRUE fan of the show, maybe even obsessed with it (I performed in a school version as well), loved the voices, the message AND the Fosse swag, this commercial “circus” is not for you. Everything was a “joke,” down to the most inspirational moments, music and lyrics (the circus effect in full force). To each his/her own. But if you are a serious fan of the original, stay away. No “morning glow” here.

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