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. This first Broadway revival of Stephen Schwartz’s 1972 musical at the Music Box, about the son of a medieval king searching for his corner of the sky, is at its best when presenting a circus.
Employing the services of Gypsy Snider, one of the founders of Les 7 doigts de la main (aka Seven fingers) — the Montreal-based circus troupe that created the wonderfully athletic “Traces” a few seasons back — “Pippin” has acrobats who jump through hoops to entertain us, as well as jugglers, aerialists on trapezes, a human jump-rope, pole-climbers, back-flippers, and contortionists who waddle up the aisle with their heads between their legs. What is most extraordinary about all these acts is that they are performed not just by the life-long circus artists, but by the regular cast – most memorably Andrea Martin, in a deliciously comic turn as Pippin’s lustful grandmother, who charms with a sing-along version of “No Time at All.” Martin is indeed of a grandmotherly age, 66 years old, but as we see when she takes off her dress to reveal a trapeze artist’s skimpy costume beneath, she has an amazingly fit body. Far more astonishing is what she does with that body, performing a sinuous, entwining mid-air trapeze duet with circus artist Yannick Thomas that is simultaneously sexy and seemingly death-defying.
Also impressive is the integration of these circus stunts with choreography by Chet Walker in the style of the original sly, glad-handing director and choreography, Bob Fosse.
In between all this dancing and death-defying, unfortunately, there still remains the musical “Pippin,” which may shock the uninitiated with book writer Roger O. Hirson’s insultingly simplistic story and dopey dialogue, and Schwartz’s largely (though not entirely) unmemorable score. It is an un-refreshing mix of child-like lessons about finding yourself with childish insertions of foul language and bawdy insinuations. The supposed message of this muddled musical is that the truly enlightened seek out not the extraordinary but the ordinary life, yet the only thing interesting about the musical is the extraordinary razzle-dazzle.
When they’re not climbing poles or executing sultry dancing moves, the cast of some two dozen attractive, remarkably in-shape performers do a serviceable job on the thankless job of delivering the plot. Besides Andrea Martin, I was most impressed with Rachel Bay Jones as the widow with whom (spoiler alert) Pippin settles down. I was least impressed with Matthew James Thomas as Pippin. Thomas, who played Peter Parker in matinees of “Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark” is fine in the acrobatic requirements of his role, but put no more life into the cipher of his character than would an apple-cheeked adolescent member of a boy band (not entirely his fault, given the part), and at the performance I saw, he too often sang weakly and off-key. Patina Miller (“Sister Act”) plays the Leading Player, which made Ben Vereen a star and was Bob Fosse’s central concept in turning the mealy-mouthed script into a hit, by making Pippin’s tale a story within a wider self-consciously showy show. Miller plays the ringmaster, and has all the technical gifts for the role — she moves well, has a strong voice, can keep the hula hoop on her wait and stay balanced on a trapeze. She clearly has won over many with her performance, having been nominated for a Tony for best leading actress in a musical (one of 10 nominations Pippin received — the third highest of any show this year.)
I think Paulus may be onto something with her circus acts that could revive not just “Pippin” but all of Broadway’s worst shows. In the 2012-2013 season alone: 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? Norbert Leo Butz could literally have balanced the books in Dead Accounts. And if Jekyll and Hyde were made into a circus, the cast could perform a disappearing act.
Book by Roger O. Hirson; music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz; Directed by Diane Paulus; choreography by Chet Walker; circus creation by Gypsy Snider of Les 7 Doigts de la Main; music supervision and arrangements by Nadia Di Giallonardo; orchestrations by Larry Hochman; sets by Scott Pask; lighting by Kenneth Posner; costumes by Dominique Lemieux; sound by Jonathan Deans and Garth Helm; illusions by Paul Kieve; fire effects by Chic Silber; flying effects by ZFX Inc
Cast: Matthew James Thomas (Pippin), Patina Miller (Leading Player), Terrence Mann (Charles), Charlotte d’Amboise (Fastrada), Rachel Bay Jones (Catherine) and Andrea Martin (Berthe), Erik Altemus, Gregory Arsenal, Andrew Cekala, Lolita Costet, Colin Cunliffe, Andrew Fitch, Orion Griffiths, Viktoria Grimmy, Sabrina Harper, Olga Karmansky, Bethany Moore, Brad Musgrove, Stephanie Pope, Philip Rosenberg, Yannick Thomas, Molly Tynes, Anthony Wayne, Ashton Woerz
Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes.
Theater tickets: $59 – $148