My husband remarked, that any show that needs a troupe of circus performers to liven it up couldn’t be much of a show to begin with. He has a point. PIPPIN— the 1972 Tony Award-winning musical is once again headed for Broadway in a new incarnation. The A.R.T.’s 40th Anniversary production certainly gets a lift from the acrobatics, Diane Paulus’s direction, and some good performances– but not enough to make this oddly cynical tale less than a downer.
Charlemagne’s (the hilariously despotic Terrence Mann) son Pippin (the innocent and appealing Matthew James Thomas) sets out optimistically to live an extraordinary life, but life’s realities chasten his idealism and plunge him into depression, until he eventually sees the light. A “mysterious” band of performers (the extraordinary Montreal-based circus troupe “Les 7 doights de la main”) punctuate the highs and lows as they cavort chorus-like onstage.
Leading the charge and setting the tone is the Leading Player played by the sinewy Patina Miller. It’s a gargantuan part, immortalized by Ben Vereen on Broadway. She’s a ringmaster–like character who sings and dances and moves the tale along, investing everything she does with a smirk and a strut. She’s working way too hard and it was exhausting to watch her. Her voice is always on key but always reaching for a power just beyond her grasp. Her dance moves are overly articulated in that proto-pop & lock Fosse way, but with none of the ease and elan. Her line readings land with a thud.
The sets, colors, lighting, and costumes are muted and off-putting. This doesn’t seem a dazzling world to begin with. The jokes are old and the timing is off. The only performer on that stage who TRULY brings the house down is ANDREA MARTIN the vintage comedian and talented actress who brings the old schtick to life and then, in an astonishing solo, does things a woman playing a grandmother can usually only dream about. She got the biggest applause of the evening and deserved it.
PIPPIN’s musical and literary pedigree can’t hold a candle to CANDIDE which covers much the same territory. Where CANDIDE (Bernstein and Voltaire by way of Hugh Wheeler) is life-affirming and transcendnt, PIPPIN (Schwartz and Hirson) is depressing, and cruel. In fact the book breaks down in Act II where Pippin’s refusal to self-immolate in a crazy bid for perfection, and instead decides to parent a young boy and marry the boy’s mother (a widow whom the Leading Player points out is almost too old for the part) feels creepy and far-fetched. To borrow a sentiment of Peggy Lee’s–Is THAT all there is?
OK. It’s not CANDIDE. It’s a different show. It’s darker. But it doesn’t make its case. I was not rejoicing, nor did I feel relieved of the burden of optimism. The A.R.T. has done what it can to pump this thing up, but in the words of the signature opening tune, there is still “Magic to Do.”
See for yourself and let me know what you think– at the AMERICAN REPERTORY THEATER in Cambridge through January 20th!