It’s fair to mention that PIPPIN is not my favorite musical. I also happened to be sick as a dog as I sat in the audience on opening night. BUT, that said, I enjoyed this production so much more than I did the A.R.T.’s pre-broadway update of the 1972 Tony-Award winning musical onstage in Cambridge. That adaptation did go on to Broadway and another Tony Award, this time for best musical revival. And it is revived!
The show which A.R.T. Artistic Director Diane Paulus pumped up with acrobatics and magic tricks executed by Montreal-based circus troupe “Les 7 doights de la main” seems to have found its groove. Literally. Bob Fosse’s signature choreography–proto-pop & lock punctuated with a few groovy “go go” moves, and Stephen Schwartz’s indelible score where every song tells a story and sounds different from every other– is well served. In fact this cast made me warm to its themes and helped smooth over the shift to that indisputably odd and downcast second act.
The eponymous “Pippin” is heir apparent to King Charlemagne (a confident, Monty Pythonesquely funny John Rubinstein who played Pippin in the original Broadway production with Ben Vereen!) Here, Pippin is played by Brian Flores with boyish charm and energy, a strong pop voice, and a winning mix of innocence and smarts. He flees the stifling court intrigue (mom likes his younger brother Lewis better) and sets out into the world seeking a fulfilling, meaningful life.
Like an inverse Hamlet, this boy can act– and he tries it all: war, sex, political revolution, art, and religion, until finally in Act II a widow and her son present the possibility of the ordinary domestic life. By that time Pippin is in despair and can’t believe that’s all there is.
But let me go back. Act I is truly alive with spectacle and led by an emcee or ringmaster of sorts called the Leading Player who along with her troupe of acrobats and magicians, eggs Pippin on, enticing him with the world’s delights which may not be all that they seem. Gabrielle McClinton in the part, has a mischievous almost devious glint in her eye; she sings and dances well enough though not charismatically enough to mesmerize us. The dancers (choreographed by Chet Walker in the style of Bob Fosse) are often out of step and fail to consistently achieve Fosse’s trademark line and mechanized precision.
Pippin’s mother Fastrada on the other hand, is the sleekly delectable Sabrina Harper who snaps her every move into sensual shape. And Adrienne Barbeau as Pippin’s Grandmother Berthe? Well let me just say that the actress is a marvel. Her performance grounds this production in a warmth and earthiness that helps us with the cruel realities of Act II. And when she takes to the trapeze with a body that just hasn’t quit? Well, I was cheering in my soul. You go girl. The audience went WILD.
And speaking of Act II, this is where reality sets in. Really. There’s a scene with barnyard animals that I believe has been amplified and certainly appealed to the kids in the audience, but lengthens an act which is already too long. The widow Catherine played by a frisky Bradley Benjamin doesn’t seem too old at all for our young hero, though the Leading Player keeps undermining her age- appropriateness throughout. The final scene where Pippin realizes, Icarus-like, that perfection is not of this world–remains a real downer.
PIPPIN’s musical and literary pedigree can’t hold a candle to CANDIDE which covers much the same thematic territory. Where CANDIDE (Bernstein and Voltaire by way of Hugh Wheeler) is life-affirming and transcendent, PIPPIN (Schwartz and Hirson) is depressing, and cruel. When Catherine sings “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man,” I couldn’t help but think of Sondheim’s “Being Alive” from COMPANY, and how much wiser and more satisfying that song is in expressing not only the same sentiments about the compromises we make, but also the fulfillment that comes with embracing the mere fact of our lives at all.
I will probably never love the way this show ends, and will always wish I could find what’s missing in Act II. But this production presented by Broadway in Boston at the Opera House may be as good as it gets, and is worth embracing as far as it goes.
See PIPPIN through February 14th!