I was considerably at odds with both critical and public opinion on the recent American Repertory Theater production of Pippin. The crowds went crazy and the critics did, too. Me, not so much. (Read my review.)
I'm sorry, but I just found the production to be all flash and no substance. But then, that has always been the problem with Pippin, ever since Bob Fosse kicked composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz and librettist Roger O. Hirson out of rehearsals and proceeded to mold the show into his nihilistic, pyrotechnical vision.
But I was open to the possibility that I might simply have been a tad dyspeptic, or perhaps out-of-sorts, on the night that I saw Pippin in Cambridge. So when I got the invite to see Pippin again, I eagerly replied in the affirmative.
The reviews for the Broadway production were no less rhapsodic, although there were a few holdouts, including Ben Brantley at the New York Times, and Terry Teachout at the Wall Street Journal. Well, after seeing the show again, I have to say that I still come down on the side of Ben and Terry. This Pippin is lively, bright, and loud, to be sure, but it still lacks any discernible meaning. For me, what we have here is the proverbial tale, full of sound and fury, yet signifying nothing.
Again, one of the main problems with Pippin as a show is that it doesn't build, it meanders, particularly during a rather uneventful second act. Fosse hid the flaws with razzle-dazzle staging, and here director Diane Paulus and choreographer Chet Walker (working "in the style of" Fosse) pretty much just substitute their own glitz for the Fosse glitz, supplemented by some admittedly impressive acrobatics, supplied by Gipsy Snider of Les 7 doigts de le mains. But, again, what does it all amount to, besides audience-pleasing showboating? How do all the cast members bouncing around on green workout balls illuminate the meaning of "Simple Joys"? What's the point of having the two hand-balancers upstaging the action during the number "With You"? I'm as big a sucker as the next guy for whiz-bang production elements, provided, of course, they add something to the narrative.
There did seem to be some changes to the production on the road from Cambridge to Manhattan. Some sequences genuinely seemed more fluid, while others seemed to produce more of an ebb in the flow of the production, notably the number "Extraordinary." I seem to recall that at the A.R.T., this number simply featured the character Pippin climbing around the set and singing, but now we have a fully staged, overly busy, distractingly cutesy barnyard number, complete with folksy costumes and lots of focus-pulling stage business for the members of the ensemble. The number lacks focus, exacerbated by a whole lot of self-satisfied mugging on the part of the chorus. (I guess that's one of the dangers of filling your show with acrobats who can't act.)
As for the cast, I remain fully enamored of both the quirky Rachel Bay Jones, in the otherwise thankless role of Catherine, and the astonishing Andrea Martin as Berthe. Martin, quite deservedly, got a mid-show standing ovation after her masterful "No Time at All," which was somehow even more of a pleasure in New York than it was in Cambridge.I have to say that Matthew James Thomas, in the title role, has become far more animated and sympathetic. Charlotte d'Amboise as Fastrada also seems more comfortable and self-assured, although neither performer has made the cross over into memorable. Patina Miller was out for this particular performance, but Stephanie Pope made for a more-than-adequate replacement as the Leading Player. In fact, I found Pope to have more presence and a more satisfyingly sinister bent than Miller did.
Terrence Mann as Charlemagne remains marble-mouthed and mumbly, particularly during "War Is a Science." If anything, I understood even less of what he sang this time around. In fact, Mann's take on "War Is a Science" sort of crystallized for me what's wrong with Pippin as a whole. Paulus ups the tempo for the final verse, making the last part into a patter song, and all but obliterating any meaning we could derive from the lyric.
Sound and fury.