Thursday, August 1, 2013

Pippin Carves Out His Niche in the World

As a proud member of the theater community, I must admit I’ve never seen the musical “Pippin” on stage. Sure, I know the music (we sang it in third grade choir and I sang “With You” at a wedding in the early 90s), I saw the TV version with ‘The Greatest American Hero’ in the 80s – but I’ve never really thought “oh, I need to see that when it’s playing somewhere locally”. It is truly a concept musical where players take on the roles to give a tale to an audience. Songs don’t always have as much to do with the plot as they do with giving a theme/message/lesson. When it appeared in the early 70s, it made a statement about war and where our country was at that moment.

The revival that opened three months ago on Broadway and won numerous Tony awards is full of the magic and miracles mentioned in the opening song. What a production! What a cast! Director Diane Paulus has a vision of the journey she wanted to take her audience on and boy…does she take us! While she still incorporates the legendary Bob Fosse moves (via her choreographer Chet Walker), she has ‘tamed down” the sex and made it a family-friendly circus with the aid of Gypsy Snider. The environment they have created with spectacle and breath-holding stunts done by performers can match the falling chandelier a block over with no problem what so ever.

So much has been said about a woman playing the Leading Player – both from purist and others. (I actually spoke to a female director friend of mine who did the same thing several years ago when she directed it.)  There really is no reason why this role must be male or female. Patina Miller is an incredible ring master in this circus: singing, dancing, doing stunts and then showing some great acting chops towards the final scenes of the play. Matthew James Thomas is an adorable Pippin (that has gone blonde since starting the show and looks much more like a boy band member now). He has an incredible voice and makes us want to root for him on his quest to discover his purpose in life. I do wish the music director would not have been so lenient on back phrasing when he sings. We know these songs, so the fact he gets so behind the measure makes it sound like he is off. (Personal pet peeve, I’m sure – but it’s very noticeable.) It was wonderful to see Terrence Mann and real life wife Charlotte D’Amboise working together as Charles and Fastrada. I’ve always been a fan of both and they do not disappoint. (And they have plenty of examples of their own kind of magic acts throughout the show.)

Andrea Martin is fabulous in anything she does. The fact this 66 year old woman (my own mother turned 67 the day before I saw this, so that blew me away) can do ALL that she does in this show is incredible. And the audience knows it. Applause that goes on forever when her song ends with several jumping to their feet shows the appreciation for her work, as does the awards she has won for the show. But I have to say my favorite ‘secondary’ actor had to be Rachel Bay Jones as Catherine. What comic timing. What a beautiful voice. And what depth of acting to show a range of emotions needed by this character. I was blown away by her and wish she had been acknowledged more when it was awards time.

This is the most well known work of Roger O. Hirson who wrote the book. A story that draws from real life characters and spends its time teaching audiences while it teaches Pippin. Stephen Schwartz knows his way around great songs. He has proved it over and over. This score (naturally) speaks to the time it was written and has a real 70s sound, but he still gets the premise that by a second song in a show – we should know what the main character WANTS. With “Corner of the Sky” – we know exactly what Pippin is after: the universal theme of seeking out something different, something better. Striving to be extraordinary in an ordinary world. I see nothing wrong with that message.
There is a nostalgic feeling for this piece with those that hold it near and dear to their heart (because they have done a college production or because they can sing every song). You get that sense from the moment the show starts and people are clapping and screaming for every single 'moment' when it starts. Thank you, Ms. Paulus for believing it was time audiences heard that message once again and for giving us your take on this forty year old story. 

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