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Broadway Magic: Pippin’s New Spellbinding Production

April 28th, 2013
The cast of “Pippin.” (photo: Joan Marcus)

I can count on one hand the number of breath-catching moments I’ve had sitting in a Broadway theater (Cherry Jones’ leap of faith in the final moment of Pride’s Crossing and Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald singing “Wheels of a Dream” in Ragtime just to name two.) Pippin, which recently opened at the Music Box Theatre in a mesmerizing production directed by Diane Paulus with choreography by Chet Walker and circus creation by Gypsy Snider is packed with them. Some are of the good ole’ Broadway hoofer variety, others rely on ingenious theatrical craft.

Pippin opened on Broadway in 1972. It had been a student project of composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz. He had scored big with Godspell in 1971 and after some sage advice from Harold Prince, Schwartz revamped the project with help of book writer Roger O. Hirson. Bob Fosse got wind of the project and the rest is musical theater history… sort of.

The response from critics was lukewarm but Pippin’s producers pulled their own magic, placing the first ad for a Broadway musical on television. Sales picked up and audiences responded. The show ran for 1,944 performances.

Take the jump for our review…

Patina Miller (l) and Matthew James Thomas in “Pippin.” (photo: Joan Marcus)

In this electrifying new production, Paulus and team pay homage to the 70s pop-style of the original production but inject a modern sensibility and style that feels relevant and captivates the audience. Loosely following the story of Pippin the Hunchback, the firstborn son of King Charles, and his failed attempt at assassinating his father, this musical version portrays Pippin (played by Matthew James Thomas) as a youthful everyman in search of his purpose in life. Thomas carries the audience like a delicate angel on his shoulders. With a boy-next-door smile and somewhat self-deprecating disposition, Thomas delivers perhaps the most subtle performance of the production, but the balance is needed when you’ve got Patina Miller onstage.

Stepping into — rather reinventing — the Tony award-winning role created by Ben Vereen, Miller tackles The Leading Player with such verve and precision that you can practically see a Tony halo hovering above her head. Slickly outfitted in costumes by Dominique Lemieux, she sinuously lures Pippin through the evening’s action, finding plenty of time in the spotlight to show off Chet Walker’s choreography.

Walker, who has spent a lifetime in the Fosse milieu, having appeared in The Pajama Game, Pippin, Dancin’ and Sweet Charity, manages to translate Fosse’s signature style into something wholly unique. Drawing from a broader vocabulary of movement and physicality, Walker’s choreography holds on to the Fosse hands and hips, but injects an almost aggressive, piercing style suited to Paulus’s vision.

The supporting cast, which includes real life husband and wife Terrence Mann and Charlotte D’Amboise as Pippin’s father King Charles and stepmother Frastrada, Rachel Bay Jones as love interest Catherine, and Andrea Martin as Pippin’s feisty grandmother Bertha, each turn in well-crafted performances with stand-out moments.

It’s easily to believe that Mann’s bristling and authoritative Charles could rule a kingdom, and in his end of Act I scene with Pippin reveals as such. D’Amboise, a veteran hoofer on Broadway who has not often enough had the opportunity to originate roles, relishes in every moment of Fastrada’s wispy sexuality, turning from coy to seductive with a flip of her fiery red hair. Jones’s take on Catherine is both quirky and captivatingly pathetic as the player and her show-within-a-show counterpart. An insider tip: watch Jones throughout the first act for gloriously subtle movements and moments as a member of the ensemble. The actress’s inner dialogue is running rampant. And then there’s Andrea Martin, who must have taken a crash course at Les 7 doigts de la main to prepare for her aerial solo. At the performance I saw, Martin received a standing ovation in the middle of the show.

The cast of “Pippin.” (photo: Joan Marcus)

Much will be said about Gypsy Snider’s circus creations and they are, indeed, captivating. Collaboratively, these elements are most effective when used to further and/or enhance the storytelling. Paul Kieve’s illusions should also be mentioned as an integral part of Pippin’s visual identity.

“They say the whole is greater than the sum of the parts it’s made of,” sing Pippin and Catherine. This production of Pippin exudes greatness as cast and creative team each bring their part to a haunting and spectacular mosaic of musical theater.

Music Box Theatre
239 West 45th Street

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