In the arts-criticism course that I teach at the Boston Conservatory, one of the DVDs that I've had my students watch almost every semester is Pippin. This isn't because I necessarily like the show, but rather because it's a relatively easy starting point for my students and their developing critical sensibilities. Many of my students are musical-theater majors, and Pippin usually gives them plenty to think about in terms of what's worth praising and what's worth criticizing in a musical production.
And the verdict by consensus from all of those reviews over the years -- and I'm inclined to agree -- is that Pippin is, at least in its initial incarnation, a triumph of style over substance. The show has some really strong and memorable songs ("Corner of the Sky," "Magic to Do"), but it also has some really dull ones ("Extraordinary," "Love Song"). Plus, the book represents this muddled sort of bildungsroman that seems to be about...I don't know, the meaning of life? The meaninglessness of life? The importance of not falling prey to the ministrations of a traveling group of performers and their charismatic leader?
Pippin's original director and choreographer, Bob Fosse, seemed to understand that the show itself was no great shakes, so he set about reshaping it with his own vision, despite the objections of composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz and librettist Roger O. Hirson. Fosse even famously banned Schwartz and Hirson from rehearsals to keep them from meddling. Pippin hasn't been back to Broadway since that original run, possibly because people were afraid to tamper with Fosse's vision, or perhaps thought that the show wouldn't work without the Fosse flair.
Enter Diane Paulus at the American Repertory Theater, a director who has demonstrated repeatedly (see Hair, Porgy and Bess) that she's not intimidated by the iconic status of certain productions or by audience expectations. Paulus starts by getting rid of the commedia dell'arte trappings of the original production. (Although the show includes a very clever nod to Tony Walton and his original logo for the show.) Instead, we have the rather unoriginal device of the circus tent and a band of acrobats to emphasize the notion that this is a tale that the players travel the country with, looking to tempt potential Pippins into their fold. To achieve her own vision of the piece, Paulus has teamed up with Gypsy Snider of the Montreal-based acrobatics troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main (creators of the much-extended Off-Broadway hit Traces).
For the most part, I found the acrobatics more of a self-conscious distraction than an additive production value, and the gleeful reaction of the crowd around me the night I saw the show seemed to emphasize this. I mean, we're talking about one number that's meant to depict thousands of people being senselessly slaughtered by the forces of Charlemagne ("Glory"), and people were bursting into spontaneous applause breaks over the admittedly impressive physical feats that were nonetheless upstaging the intent of the number. This was also apparent during "Simple Joys," a song with a lyric that I've never really been able to figure out:
Wouldn't you rather be a left-handed flea
A crab on a slab at the bottom of the sea
Than a man who never learns how to be free
Not 'til he's underground
Yeah, I get that the Leading Player is trying to get Pippin to agree to "star" in the players' nefarious show, but what do fleas and crabs have to do with anything? And the staging here for the number only adds to the confusion, with acrobats bouncing on large green balls, jumping through hoops, doing back-flips, etc. So that's what the simple joys are, huh? Rolling around on all those balls at the gym?
The choreography for this Pippin is by Chet Walker, working "in the style of" Bob Fosse. Part of me thinks it was a mistake to retain this constant reminder that this production is based on someone else's vision, but to Walker's credit, he manages to put his own imprimatur on many of the numbers, and he's certainly not slavish to Fosse. The opening song, "Magic to Do," for instance, is staged here without the iconic white hands seemingly floating in space. The only segment that's a complete reproduction is the famed "Manson Trio," although the genders are reversed: a female Leading Player (Patina Miller) and two male back-up dancers. Also, I loved how Walker included a loving nod to Fosse in staging the orgy scene with obvious references to the dance from "Take Off With Us" from Fosse's movie "All That Jazz."
The cast here are decidedly mixed, although I must admit that, having watched that DVD of Pippin so many times, I'm a bit spoiled by the intensity and showmanship of Ben Vereen and Chita Rivera. Patina Miller lacked the captivating presence and sinister subtext of Ben Vereen, although she did occasionally find ways to make the part her own. Charlotte d'Amboise as Fastrada was breathless and flat when singing, and her dancing lacked Chita's sharp angularity. Matthew James Thomas as Pippin couldn't seem to hold my attention or inspire my sympathy, although that might be partly because of all the distracting activity in this production. But even when he was alone onstage, his presence was mostly rather bland, although there were some times when his gawkish awkwardness made him almost real.
On the sort-of plus side, we have Terrence Mann as Charlemagne. Mann found lots of small ways to make the part believably pompous and doddering, although his diction was extremely poor during his songs. I don't think I understood a single word of "War Is a Science," and then Paulus makes the mistake of speeding up the final verse to make it a patter song, which only compounded the issue, clouded over the point of the song, and buried Schwartz's erudite lyric.
The two key reasons to see this production are Andrea Martin as Berthe and Rachel Bay Jones as Catherine. Yes, Catherine. How many times do you see Pippin and have Catherine be the one who stands out? Catherine is usually as thankless a role as Hope Harcourt in Anything Goes or Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls, but Jones brings the part a certain goofball charm and a strong sense of vulnerability. One of the highlights of act two was "I Guess I'll Miss the Man," a song that's often a throwaway, or even cut entirely (as it was from the DVD).
And Andrea Martin is simply a force of nature, in everything she does really, but in particular here. She's the best thing in the whole show, and delivers her one and only song ("No Time at All") with enough focus, clarity, and professionalism to lift the first act out of its doldrums and propel the show toward the newly inserted intermission (after "Morning Glow"). Suddenly, I was transported, but Martin's performance only served to underscore what was missing from the rest of the production: focus and honesty. Thankfully, Rachel Bay Jones served this same function in the second act, but for me it wasn't enough.
Full disclosure: I seem to be the only person in Christendom who didn't like this production. Most of my friends who have seen Pippin at the A.R.T. were thoroughly charmed, even amazed, and the local reviews have been strong. The show announced that it was transferring to Broadway even before the reviews came out, and the entire run at the A.R.T. is almost completely sold out. What can I say? The show doesn't quite work for me, and never really has, and Diane Paulus's production wasn't able to change my mind.