Nominations won’t be out for months, but the Tony race for Best Revival of a Musical is already over.
Back to the orphanage, Annie. Nice try, Edwin Drood. Make way for Diane Paulus’ Broadway-bound reinvention of Pippin, currently finishing it’s run at the American Repertory Theatre in Boston, before transferring to the Music Box Theatre this spring.
Pippin, a story of a young man’s quest to find meaning in his life, always seemed a little too esoteric, especially when compared to Stephen Schwartz’s better known crowd pleasers like Godspell and Wicked.
Yet, director Paulus, who has made her mark reinvigorating seemingly outdated musicals (Hair, Porgy & Bess), has re-imagined this show in an absolutely breathtaking way. Rather than presenting the cast as a traveling group of theatrical players, she has set this production inside a big top circus, enlisting the Montreal-based acrobatic group Les 7 Doigts de la Main. The troupe tumbles across the stage, does deathy-defying trapeze acts, uses cast members as human jump ropes, and other amazing feats. Even more remarkable are the moments when their Broadway counterparts join in the fun. Early in act 1, Patina Miller (Sister Act), as the Leading Player, takes flight 15 feet above the stage in a swing. As an audience member conditioned to the Spiderman world, you begin to look for the harness that she is attached to, but there is none. The actors are taking risks too, making for a seamless entertainment experience. While you can’t help but wonder how much more Paulus and Les 7 creator, Gypsy Snider, will be able to add to the spectacle in a larger, traditional Broadway house, you also wonder if it might be too much. The only possible downside to the show’s first act is that the spectacle is so overwhelming, that you lose track of the performances on the stage. In particular, I completely lost of verse of Miller singing the song “Simple Joys”, as I was so focused on the circus artists.
As the title character, Matthew James Thomas (Reeve Carney’s alternate in Spiderman) conveys Pippin’s desire to be extraordinary with complete sincerity. His acting is first rate and his vocals will make you wonder why Reeve Carney wasn’t understudying him in New York. A lesser actor would be overshadowed by the spectacle taking place around him, but Thomas has a presence that cuts through. He is supported by an all-star group of Broadway veterans, including pitch perfect performances by Terrance Mann and Andrea Martin.
As Pippin’s father, Charles, Mann has great chemistry with his onstage son, and will surprise you with a deft comic timing that was not well utilized during his time in The Addams Family. In the small, but hilarious, role of Pippin’s grandmother Bertha, Martin might be the early favorite for a best supporting actress Tony. Her rendition of “No Time at All” is an uproarious, show-stealer. The follow-the-bouncing-ball-sing-along gimmick is in place, much like in the original production. However, Martin amazed the audience by climbing aboard the trapeze herself. No small feat for a 25 year old performer, much less one more than twice that age.
In the iconic role made famous by Ben Vereen, Patina Miller sizzles as the leading player. While Sister Act showed off her singing chops and comedic gifts, Miller shows another dimension in this show, commanding the stage from the opening notes of “Magic to Do”, up until she turns her back to the audience to regroup after losing control of Pippin. She shines in the Bob Fosse inspired choreography, brilliantly created by Chet Walker, himself a former cast member from the original Broadway company.
As much fun as the first act of Pippin is, the second act has always taken a turn for the existential. It will be interesting to see how audiences react to the darker tone, when Pippin, having found no fulfillment in schooling, combat, or as the ruler of his people, attempts to settle down in family life. He meets the widowed, Catherine, played by the lovely Rachel Bay Jones (Hair, Women on the Verge…).
Jones is a fabulous actress, deadpanning her way through the light hearted moments, while absolutely breaking the audiences heart during “Kind of Woman”. Yet… something is amiss.
While certainly not Elaine Strich, Jones just looks too old against her babyfaced leading man. The show addresses the issue when Catherine is first introduced as the Leading Player reminds her “she’s almost too old to play this part”. While Catherine and Pippin share a lovely duet in act 2 where they have good chemistry, it’s a little tough to believe that anything about the life they share with her son, Theo, played by the borderline annoying Andrew Cekala, is “Extraordinary” enough to make Pippin plant his flag and build a home.
Then again, maybe that’s the point? Is the show saying life is rarely perfect and if you can’t be with the life you love, then love the life you are with? It’s likely to be the main point you talk about as you leave the theater, and I wonder if the show can better address that issue as it fine tunes for Broadway.
And really, it’s probably been since Next to Normal that you have seen a musical that will inspire some debate and conversation on the way home. What’s not to love about that?
Pippin concludes it’s Boston run on January 20th and is scheduled to begin previews at the Music Box Theatre in New York on March 22nd.