Pippin, the offspring of a king, takes a journey to find his corner of the sky in “Pippin,” a musical Stephen Schwartz wrote before “Wicked” and Bob Fosse directed and choreographed before “Chicago,” which has now taken its own journey back to Broadway four decades after its debut.
“Amiable and racy,” Clive Barnes called it in the New York Times when it opened in October, 1972. It went on to win five Tony Awards (and be nominated for 11), and run for four and a half years.
“It hasn’t been back to the Great White Way since,” Jeffrey Gantz wrote in The Boston Globe in January of this year, in reviewing the revival of the musical at the American Repertory Theater directed by Diane Paulus (“Porgy and Bess,” “Hair”), and starring Matthew James Thomas (“Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark”) as Pippin and Patina Miller (“Sister Act”) as Leading Player. But ART’s production “deserves to get there…the ART production melds extraordinary circus acrobatics and magical illusions with “ordinary” virtues like accomplished acting, singing, and dancing plus a refreshing lack of cynicism. Miller [in the part Ben Vereen originated] is an infectiously inviting host, smart, sassy, and swivel-hipped, with a voice that, in “Glory,” soars over the chorus”
And now the A.R.T. production of “Pippin” has arrived on Broadway, featuring choreography by Chet Walker in the style of Bob Fosse and circus creation by Gypsy Snider of the Montreal-based circus company Les 7 doigts de la main (also known as 7 Fingers).
Here are some reactions from the New York critics to the Broadway transfer. They range from Adam Feldman’s “musical-theater showmanship at its best” to Matthew Murray’s “bloated and soul-starved.” Andrea Martin is universally praised for her performance; Patina Miller is praised to the hilt by some reviewers, and slammed to the core by others:
Ben Brantley, New York Times: Ms. Paulus’s “Pippin” is in its way a natural extension of Fosse’s, pushing the musical from seduction into sensory assault. This is a “Pippin” for the 21st century, when it takes more than style to hold the attention of a restless, sensation-hungry audience….Paulus’s “Pippin” is often fun (with an exclamation point), but it’s almost never stirring in the way her Tony-winning revival of “Hair” was.
Jonathan Mandell, New York Theater: For her version of “Pippin,” director Diana Paulus reached back to the wisdom of the Ancients – distracting us from a dud by offering bread and circuses….Her approach might have worked wonders with some of the earlier duds of the season. What if prisoner Patti LuPone had performed a Houdini escape in The Anarchist, or Cheyenne Jackson in The Performers had engaged in simulated sex mid-air on a trapeze? ….
Mark Kennedy, Associated Press: The last show to open this season on Broadway comes with plenty of bang, lots of flips and real value for money: A ticket buys you not just a musical but also a trip to the circus. The American Repertory Theatre’s thrilling revival of that cultishly cute “Pippin” opened Thursday at the Music Box Theatre as a hybrid that surely will keep everyone thoroughly entertained.
Thom Geier, Entertainment Weekly: Grade A: “..It’s amazing how Chet Walker’s Fosse-inspired choreography blends seamlessly with the hand-walking, knife-throwing, backflipping, human-jump-roping antics of the enviably limber cast.”
Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post: 4 out of 4 stars. Broadway’s ending its season with a sensational revival of “Pippin” — a thrilling piece of eye-popping razzle dazzle filled with daredevil acrobatics.
Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal: The circus performers are sensational, but …Ms. Paulus’s relentlessly aggressive staging…is big, noisy and mostly humorless, a “Pippin” that looks as if it had been born not in Cambridge but Las Vegas…. I went home feeling as though I’d been yelled at for 2½ hours.
Erik Haagensen, Backstage: Grade: A…I’ve become a convert. I finally love Pippin…Patina Miller…is as accomplished a dancer as she is a singer, riding confident herd over the swirling proceedings. Paulus has unlocked a joyful innocence in “Pippin”—after all, it began life as a college musical—and Miller is key to that…Handsome Matthew James Thomas delivers a sweetly earnest Pippin with just a touch of nerd. ”
David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter: A medieval fable that makes a giddy hodge-podge out of Candide and Faust, bulging with sexy circus acts, magic tricks, tuneful early-‘70s pop-rock songs, elementary existentialism and comedy that runs the gamut from goofy and campy through grotesque and bawdy, Pippin shouldn’t work, but it does. Up to a point. Diane Paulus’ Broadway revival of the 1972 musical is massively, almost overwhelmingly entertaining, even if its audacious razzle-dazzle doesn’t mask the limitations of its book. Still, fans of this much-loved show couldn’t ask for a more energized production.
Matt Windham, AM New York: “Grade: 3.5 stars…a stunning, circus-themed production that seamlessly combines dance choreography in the trademark Fosse style with countless acrobatic feats…Matthew James Thomas’ lifeless performance as Pippin.. mars the production with his hollow acting and weak singing. ”
Jeremy Gerard, Bloomberg: The opening moments of “Pippin” are the most thrilling since the humans and beasts of “The Lion King” spilled down the aisles to the onstage savannah more than 15 years ago….All of which is fabulous if you’re 10 years old….Paulus’s “Pippin” is G-rated, frisky rather than sexy, the slick sweat of lust replaced by dazzling but vague innocence. That makes it a visual treat, but eye candy takes you only so far. And as “Matilda” demonstrates a few theaters away, kids “get” dark more than we give them credit for.
Adam Feldman, Time Out New York: Grade: 5 stars: Ladies and gentlemen, step right up to the greatest show of the Broadway season. Diane Paulus’s sensational cirque-noir revival of Pippin. Here, in all its grand and dubious glory, is musical-theater showmanship at its best, a thrilling evening of art and craftiness spiked with ambivalence about the nature of enthrallment. …Beneath the production’s over-the-big-top trappings is Roger O. Hirson and Stephen Schwartz’s 1972 musical, a slight but resonant parable stuffed with delightful songs”
Robert Kahn, NBC New York: “Fosse by way of the Flying Wallendas…My advice is to judge this “Pippin” based on how it makes you feel, once you’ve separated that from all the delightful noise. It left me ecstatic and spent, and feeling like it’s time to attend trapeze school.”
Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune: far and away the best musical production of the current Broadway season and a “Pippin” that will make you afraid of ever seeing it again thereafter, lest the sheer joy of what transpires at the Music Box Theatre is compromised.”
Matthew Murray, Talkin’ Broadway: “bloated and soul-starved…the evening is proudly, self-consciously artificial, and if not for [Andrea] Martin and “No Time At All” it would be totally heartless as well.”