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Pippin Broadway revival (Review) — Spectacular April 21, 2013

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, musical theater, Musicals.
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PIPPIN, revived by American Repertory Theater and opening this week at The Music Box Theater in NYC is, in a word, Spectacular.

This is turning into an exciting season: I feel sad because this year’s Best Revival of a Musical award would have otherwise gone to the excellent “Mystery of Edwin Drood” which I loved very much…but along comes the year’s other Best Revival of a Musical – PIPPIN, which I loved even more.

Re-staged (but incorporating much of Fosse’s original choreography by Chet Walker), director Diane Paulus sets the action in a circus-themed environment where Gypsy Snider of Les 7 doigts de la Main has created the circus stunts and effects. The circus performers are so well integrated into the ensemble cast of this production that you really can’t tell who is who — and that is Broadway magic.

Matthew James Thomas plays Pippin, and he is in excellent vocal and physical shape. He almost seems to mold himself from insecure nobody, to physical hunk before your very eyes. Patina Miller plays the Lead Player, and while it isn’t a definitive career move like it was for Ben Vereen, she is none-the-less perfectly cast and sings/dances up a storm. She is particularly good in the Fosse recreations within the “Manson Dance” and cakewalk sequence (which has been moved, inexplicably, toward the end of the show).

Terrence Man is a commanding King, Charlotte d’Amboise a wild-limbed but never out of control Queen Fastrada, and Rachel Bay Jones plays an endearing Catherine. Erik Altemus is an athletic and entertaining brother Lewis (among many of his other parts).

But that leads me to hand-her-the-T0ny Andrea Martin as grandmother Berthe. In the Irene Ryan role (and probably on stage a full 10 minutes in this production) she is going to walk away with gold come Tony night (and just about every other award night, mind you) for her trapeze-swinging performance. Its rare that you see a real showstopper these days, and this one does, and it deserves it. 66-year old Martin makes it look easy and with a wink and a smile she’s on her way. And talk about a show that everybody now knows: her sing-along is tremendous fun and I didn’t see a single person sitting around me that didn’t know the words! While Pippin is re-appearing in NYC again for the first time since the 70’s, it has been done by countless high school, college, community, and regional theaters for all these long years in between. I have personally directed it three times already.

There are some curious changes — in particular almost all the verses in “War is a Science” have been rewritten. New words are substituted in places throughout many of the “standards” which is a bit off-putting in a score that every man, woman, and child in the audience knows by heart. There is also an intermission added — which makes the under-two hour production now run 2 and a half hours and interrupts the flow, although as the Lead Player states leading into it “attention spans these days aren’t what they used to be.” Roger O Hirson’s book has been changed very little from the original, although some of the dialogue scenes in Act II which were so zippily played in throw-away in the original, here tend to drag on a bit.

Diane Paulus’s direction, overall, is fast-paced and clever. Things happen similarly to the Fosse original, and yet very differently at the same time — but never once in the evening does one feel that the show is far from the spirit of the original — and as things start to veer out of control in the larger dance numbers, she cleverly brings your eye back to the very original heart of Pippin still beating inside the modern staging…the hand claps and head turns are all still there in “War is a Science”…the aforementioned Manson Dance is there in its entirety complete with hand gestures and pelvic thrusts…the spear-carriers are there with their instantly recognizable stance…and once “On the Right Track” hits its stride about three quarters of the way through, you see a cast that not only channels Fosse, but excels in doing so and in some ways, outdoes the original.

In almost all ways, this new staging is superior to the original — its zippier, better focused, and better designed. The circus theme works well, and looks great on Scott Pask’s colorful set. Kenneth Posner provides excellent lighting, and Dominique Lemieux’s costumes take notes from the 70’s original, but create something all its own. She has better bodies to work with (the lithe thin lines of the original’s ensemble are here replaced by muscle in both men and women) and understands clothing flow to make it all look just right. Men’s shirts come and go throughout the evening, and women appear in various layers of clothing throughout.

And finally, oh that score. Stephen Schwartz’s songs stand the test of time – from “Corner of the Sky” to the stirring “Morning Glow”, the sing-along of “No Time at All”, and the lovely ballads “With You” and “Love Song” and all the tuneful rest. This is the way shows used to be written — lots of great songs strung together with creative choreography which made the whole greater than the sum of the parts it made of. Wink nod.

Highly recommended — and quite possibly one of the overall best musicals currently running on Broadway, new or revived.

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