Sunday, May 5, 2013

Theatre Droppings: Everything Has Its Season

Orion Griffiths is one of the sturdy gymnasts who handle the revival's heavy lifting.
Pippin was a substantial Broadway hit back in the 1970s, running almost 2,000 performances and winning 5 Tony Awards, so it's a bit surprising that the show has not been revived until now. 
John Rubinstein and Jill Clayburgh were oh, so
purposeful in the original production.
The cast recording reflects a sleepy
earnestness in their numbers.
The revival has changed ALL that.

Perhaps it's because the show is considered by many to be only a minor piece of art;  it is certainly dependant on a strong directorial concept in order to overcome its rather lackluster premise. 
This video of the Canadian production
 was stacked with stars, and preserves
Ben Vereen's Tony winning performance.

It's only my opinion, of course, but I think Pippin suffers from the same problem with which Candide is also afflicted.  Both shows contain musical scores which are admired more than the shows themselves (though there are many critics out there who dismiss Stephen Schwartz's music, no matter which show contains it).  Though I suppose Candide's score is more highly regarded, Pippin's music is more widely known, probably because every high school in the country has produced the thing. 
Michael Rupert handled Pippin in Los Angeles.

But the problem with both Pippin and Candide is the episodic nature of the story.  Both musicals feature a central character who is searching for an allusive, intangible abstraction.  In their quest to find the meaning of life, lots of incidents happen TO them, which makes these title characters more reactive than active.  Both Candide and Pippin eventually conclude that living a simple life is best.  Cue the snores.
This was the first Pippin I saw, when the national tour hit Los Angeles in the late 70s. I sat in the balcony, and watched as star Michael Rupert turned more and more of his attention to flirting with a redheaded guy in the front row.  It became downright comical. After the show, I bumped into my college chum Timmy.  A redhead who was seated in the front row.
Pippin has finally received a Broadway revival, and like its original production, the hand at the wheel is a sure one. 
The revival never stops.  No matter where you look or when, there is somebody hanging upside down or sliding down a pole or sailing through a hoop or juggling a fire baton or balancing another person on one hand. The motif works great.
Bob Fosse is credited with making Pippin a hit in the 70s, by masking its weaknesses with stylish staging. 
See what I mean? You have to look hard to
find our leading characters.

Boy, has current director Diane Paulus done the same, and more so!  She's placed the show in a circus atmosphere, and the show seldom rests.  I saw it last week, and there was so much acrobatic activity going on, I rarely knew where to look.  This concept works like gangbusters. 
Andrea Martin delivers the most surprising number in town.
At age 66, she belts her song while hanging upside down,
10 feet above the stage. It almost starts a riot.

But Paulus has improved the show itself, I think, by tweaking the ending a bit, and by some very smart casting. 
I've never seen a Pippin who outshines his Leading Player.
But this one does.

Matthew James Thomas, a Brit who was the alternate Peter Parker in the notorious Spiderman musical (which is still raking in cash), has done something no other Pippin I have ever seen has done:  he has brought the character out of the shadow of the flashier Leading Player. 
Ben Vereen set the precedent; Leading Players
are now expected to swipe the show.

Patina Miller, who made a splashy debut in the Sister Act musical a while back, is very capable and even charismatic as Ben Vereen's replacement. 

Husband and wife team Terrence Mann and Charlotte d"Amboise
play our king and queen. He is more charming than I've ever
seen him, and she tears up her big dance number.
Who knew the lackluster, straight-arrow, earnest role of Catherine was such a scream? Rachel Bay Jones gives goofy life to a role which has always put me to sleep in the past, and helps that pastoral stretch in Act II seem less long.
But a funny thing happens as the show progresses.  Thomas, as Pippin, grows in depth, while Miller's MC becomes downright brittle.  As the events unfold, we turn more and more of our attention away from the flashy narrator and toward our hero, which is as it should be (but rarely has been in the past). 

Director Paulus has done a swell job with her ensemble, mixing a few Fosse-style dancers with some gymnastically gifted acrobats. 
Charlotte d'Amboise (in the crown) has dance in her genes, and shows it. These fellows are the gypsies who fill out the ensemble dominated by the gymnasts.  But make no mistake: everybody does everything.  The gymnasts dance and the dancers flip.
Some of their tricks are downright astonishing.
These images are even more arresting
in motion.

I've heard that there are spectacular stunts happening in Spiderman the Musical, but those are accomplished with a series of wires and pulleys.  This gang sails through the air without such help, and without a net.  Whether or not this improves the show itself is up for debate, but it certainly makes this revival a stunner. 
He's a quintuple-threat: actor, singer, dancer, acrobat,
and even plays the guitar during one of the show's
few quiet moments. He's been overlooked by the
Tony nominators, who should be dropped into that
fire pit which closes the show.

When the show was done, I was convinced that Pippin, and in particular its titular star, would be honored at the Tonys.  Imagine my surprise to discover that, though Miller is nominated for her turn as the Leading Player, Matthew James Thomas has not been.  It's an egregious oversight, particularly when Miller's work is completely one-noted while Thomas has brought excitement and depth to the usually shallow Pippin. 
Someone should alert the Tony nominators that
Matthew James Thomas has broken the tradition
that the Leading Player steamroll Pippin. HIS is the
true star turn.

Ah well, at least both Andrea Martin and Terrence Mann have received nods, as has Diane Paulus for pulling the pieces of a fairly messy show together to make a fully enjoyable and coherent production. \