Pippin, the story loosely based on Charlemagne and his son Pippin, has music by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Roger O. Hirson. The cast is usually a vagabond troop of players with a Leading Player. The Leading Player was originally played by Ben Vereen, who won a Tony Award for his performance. In this production, Paulus has a more specific setting, a combination of circus and magic show under a big-top.
One of the other major changes Paulus has made in this production is that she has cast the Leading Player as a woman. In this case, the Leading Player is a combination of dominatrix and ringmaster. Ms. Paulus has restored the sexuality that has been removed from so many of the school and community theatre productions of Pippin over the years. This production has an eye-catching assortment of scantily-clad eye candy. In keeping the show current, Paulus has leveled the playing field with both heterosexual and homosexual eroticism.
The production is full of circus and magic acts including: jugglers, trapeze artists, acrobats, clowns, knife throwers, and aerial work aplenty. Gypsy Snider has cleverly designed the circus acts to work with Ms. Paulus’s reconceived mise en place. There are also some awe-inspiring illusions designed by Paul Kieve, including levitation, quick changes and that old chestnut, multiple people disappearing into, and coming out of, the same box.
As the Leading Player, Patina Miller’s Tony-nominated performance (the show got a total of 10 nominations) as the Leading Player is sensual and performed with rigid military precision. Her voice, however, has a nasal tonality to it that can grate. As Pippin, Matthew James Thomas is charming with a pleasant singing voice. In one of the season’s most fun and engaging performances is another Tony Award nominee, Andrea Martin as Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother. Ms. Martin shows off her dexterity and daring (not to mention her tight physic) with a trapeze performance during “No Time at All” that will knock your socks off. She can make the simplest sentence funny. Also a Tony nominee for his performance, Terrence Mann as Charles (Charlemagne) is obviously enjoying this role. His comic chops prove well tuned. As Catherine, who falls in love with Pippin, Rachel Bay Jones is quirky and sweet with a lovely singing voice. Charlotte D'Amboise is perfectly bitchy as Fastrada, Pippin's step-mother and Charles's son.
The scenic design by Scott Pask, lighting design by Kenneth Posner, and costume design by Dominique Lemieux combine to create an ocular orgasm that takes your breath away when the show curtain is dropped dramatically at the top of the show to reveal a tableau of the full cast. All three have been honored with a 2013 Tony Award nomination for their work. Posner is this year’s Tony Award golden boy with three of the four nominations for lighting design for a musical.
What the design team has done for the eyes, the show’s orchestrator, Larry Hochman has done for the ears. Hochman’s orchestrations give Schwartz’s score a fresh new sound. Kudos to the show’s musical director, Charlie Alterman, the ensemble sound from this company is incredibly tight.
The original production in 1972 was directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse. According to the Playbill, Chet Walker has choreographed this production “in the style of Bob Fosse.” It’s replete with jazz hands and isolations galore and the cast executes his choreography with sharp synchronicity.
Unfortunately, Pippin slows down in the second act. This is mostly not a fault of this production so much as it is just the show itself. Most of the numbers are ballads and a good deal of time has been given over to glowering between Catherine and the Leading Player as Catherine deviates from the script and sings “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man.” Thankfully, the ballads are beautifully rendered, so while the show deflates some from the energy of the first act, you’re still willingly along for the ride.
Something tells me that this revival, like the last one of these that Barry and Fran Weissler produced (Chicago), will have a long life on Broadway. It deserves it; this show is magical.