Pippin has always been a musical where the theatricality and the score compensate for some obvious story issues. So, introducing a circus motif to tell the Pippin story, as Diane Paulus has done in her new, often dazzling revival, proves to be an inspired concept. The result is a musical loaded with treats; the first act soars with razzle-dazzle highlights; Act Two loses some of the momentum, but the love story that develops involving Pippin and the widow, Catherine, does charm. It all culminates in a finale that is properly grand. However muddled the line between the troupe of performers and the characters they play becomes, Pippin nevertheless entertains wonderfully, thanks to its staging and the popular Stephen Schwartz score.
Pippin was a huge hit when it premiered on Broadway in 1972 but has never been revived on Broadway. As directed by Bob Fosse, it was a triumph of imaginative staging, and Schwartz's score also made major contributions, but the staging and the score camouflage the fact that, at times, the story isn't all that involving.There is not a real emotional pull, and the audience doesn't become particularly attached to the characters. Paulus's staging, as was also the case with Fosse's original production, overcomes many of Pippin's issues, and the revival is a triumph.
The audience excitement is clear when applause erupts during the vamp leading into the opening number, "Magic to Do." The song does not disappoint, and it leads to plenty of magic as the marriage of the Pippin story and the circus conceit transpires. There are some eye-popping acrobatics, stunts, and visuals; so much is happening on stage that at times it is difficult to absorb all of it.
It helps that the cast is superb. Patina Miller is a sensuous, commanding presence as the Leading Player. She brings the needed sense of danger and humor to the part and delivers her songs with authority. As Pippin, Matthew James Thomas is superb. From the moment he bounds onto the stage, with a megawatt smile and an innocent, youthful, exuberant enthusiasm, Thomas wins over the audience. He is very expressive and engaging. It all allows for Pippin to have a real character arc, as we watch Thomas's demeanor evolve to coincide with Pippin's disappointment as he seeks meaning for his life. He sings well, and his "Morning Glow" is a real winner. Thomas also is acrobatic and proves to be an impressive and nimble dancer in the Act Two showstopper with Miller, "On the Right Track."
When it comes to showstoppers, nothing tops the sensational Andrea Martin's "No Time at All." It was an adjustment not seeing Berthe, who is Pippin's grandmother, played as a white-haired old woman, but who cares with Martin delivering such a juicy performance. She has impeccable comic timing, and the way she performs the song has to be seen to be believed.
Terrence Mann and Charlotte d"Amboise do strong work, and Rachel Bay Jones brings an offbeat, almost goofy flirtatiousness to the role of Catherine, which is very funny. She is a big help in making the Pippin-Catherine scenes work fairly well, which has not always been the case. It is also a joy to see some of the original Fosse choreography, especially in the classic "Manson Trio" moments in "Glory."
The circus theme results in a Pippin that is not as dark as the original. There are a good number of small changes in the script and lyrics. For example, the scene between Pippin and Berthe is almost completely rewritten; there are some funny new lines in the revised scene. The ending has also been changed over the years, and the current one, referred to as the "Theo ending," is effective and a big improvement over the original. The story issues can never be totally eliminated, and Act Two inevitably can not match the almost non stop treats of Act One. But, by evening's end, Pippin has provided delicious entertainment with some visually stunning moments and the welcomed presence of songs many people have grown to love. Diane Paulus has scored once again with a brilliantly conceived production that meshes beautifully with the material, providing the needed theatricality and style that propels Pippin.
One last point. Hearing Andrea Martin sing Schwartz's lyric, "time to take time, for spring will turn to fall, in just no time at all" takes on new meaning and perspective for some of us who, in our youth, saw the original Pippin. It was surprisingly touching to hear those words and consider them from the "fall" perspective. Time does fly by; shows have come and gone, some good, some bad. Spring may have turned to fall, but the joys provided in the theater by musicals such as Pippin fortunately remain and should be cherished; it is wonderful to hear those words, that song, and watch such an inspired production of Pippin, delightfully back on Broadway once again after all those years. - James Miller
The Music Box Theater is at 239 West 45th St. in Manhattan.
Mr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the bright lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.