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Review: "Pippin" Revival Is Full of Simple Joys

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    Joan Marcus
    Patina Miller, with Matthew James Thomas, sings you the story of "Pippin," a sorrowful lad who had everything he wanted, but didn't want what he had.

    “I’ve got to be where my spirit can run free,” sings the boy prince in “Corner of the Sky,” one of many cherished songs from the musical “Pippin.” Hey, kid, I can relate. And so, it seemed, could everyone around me, young and young-ish, during a recent performance of the Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson coming-of-age fable, which has just opened in a kinetic, must-see revival at the Music Box Theatre.

    Trouble is, Pippin doesn’t know where to find that feeling of freedom. There are Visigoths to be slain and tyrannical fathers to confront. Will that do it? On a far less extraordinary note, there are pigsties to be cleaned over at a farm owned by a nice, ordinary widow. Should Pippin pursue glory, or settle down to a humdrum daily existence? That’s a tough call. As Pippin believes, when you’re extraordinary, you've gotta do extraordinary things.

    Visionary director Diane Paulus, of the recent “Hair” and “Porgy and Bess” revivals, has brought "Pippin" to Broadway after a winter run at the American Repertory Theatre outside Boston. Traveling with her down the pike are a brigade of stage vets, among them Patina Miller of “Sister Act”’; Terrence Mann, who is both Broadway’s original Rum Tum Tugger (“Cats”) and Javert (“Les Miserables”); and Andrea Martin, the exhilarating “SCTV” comedian. Joining the actors are “The Players,” a ragtag gaggle of acrobats from Montreal’s 7 Fingers troupe, which gave us “Traces,” the urban acrobatics show.

    Through a magical bit of theatrical osmosis, actors and acrobats seem to have exchanged skills, and so this 40th anniversary staging of “Pippin” boasts pole-climbing by its titular lead, the “Spider-Man” vet Matthew James Thomas, and high-in-the-sky trapeze-gliding by co-stars with far less experience acting at great heights. While so many actors hurtle through the sky, the acrobats get busy emoting, sliding across inflated exercise balls and becoming the human “rope” in a game of jump rope. Want suspense? To open the second act, the oak tree-thighed Orion Griffiths climbs onto a wood plank balanced atop five wobbly cylinders stacked on their side.

    These people all have magic to do, and over the course of two and a half hours, they deliver in relentless, surprising and cathartic ways. This revival, choreographed by Chet Walker “in the style” of original director Bob Fosse, is Fosse by way of the Flying Wallendas. “Pippin” employs a circus troupe, and so it’s rightfully set inside a circus tent. With Kenneth Posner’s playful lighting, the walls take on a variety of shades, depending on the scene: blood red, during the “Glory” battleground scene (“Blood is red as sunset”), and so on.

    Fosse’s 1972 “Pippin” famously opened with white gloves appearing out of darkness, and Ben Vereen, who won a Tony as the “Leading Player,” leading the cast in “Magic to Do.” Here, the role has undergone a gender change, and we first encounter the electrifying, top hat-clad Miller from behind the curtain, her outsized silhouette becoming smaller as she approaches the audience from backstage. Then, the curtain rises and the cast assembles for the dazzling and kaleidoscopic “Magic to Do,” with jugglers, trapeze artists and hand-walkers.

    As opening numbers go, this one’s got more momentum than a circus performer fired from a cannon (perhaps the one Big Top trope not employed here by 7 Fingers’ leader Gypsy Snider). At the song’s conclusion, we meet Thomas' Prince Pippin, a son of Charlemagne (Mann, gruff and practical, just going by “Charles” here), who has arrived home from school-educated, but still in search of himself and an “extraordinary” life. Eventually, Pippin persuades his dad to let him go off to war, which proves unfulfilling. Thomas’ Pippin is a rock star, a self-assured, if not yet self-aware prince for the 21st century. He’s got fashion sense. He’s got a sensitive soul. And he’s got abs: the musical’s orgy scene has Thomas being groped by anyone who can reach. Yet, even the orgy carries a sad overtone. None of the superficial joys Pippin’s found can satisfy the poor fella.

    Matters get worse when Pippin discovers what a rat his dad is, and he exacts the only revenge he can. Luckily, in an anachronistic piece such as “Pippin,” events can be undone, and soon Pippin’s off to try a life that’s ordinary, with a widowed farm owner (the sweet Rachel Bay Jones) and her moody son, Theo (Andrew Cekala, alternating with Ashton Woerz).

    Miller makes for a charismatic guide as the Leading Player, locking eyes with audience members throughout the evening. (Read NBC 4 NY’s interview with Miller here.) It’s thrilling to watch her during the Manson Trio dance, the soft shoe portion of “Glory,” faithfully recreated from the original by choreographer Walker, who manages to be both reverential to the 1972 production (in which he appeared) and forward-thinking, as in Miller’s rhythmic and graceful second act pas de deux with Thomas in “On the Right Track.”

    As Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother, comedian Martin (“Young Frankenstein,” etc.) gets one major scene, performing the wisdom-of-the-ages anthem “No Time at All.” Banished from the kingdom by Pippin’s stepmother, Martin’s Berthe is a cougar whose best years still await, a senior citizen with the body of a chorus girl. Taking fair advantage of our goodwill, Martin invites the audience into a group singalong of the tune, one of the most well-known from “Pippin”: “But just the choruses! The verses are all mine.”

    I didn’t immediately take to Jones’s Catherine, whose chemistry with Pippin seemed questionable for superficial reasons; the issue is resolved in surprising fashion. There’s a delightful undercurrent of tension between Jones and Miller, whose narrator feels Catherine isn’t quite following the script of the story-within-the-story. As Fastrada, Pippin’s scheming stepmother, dancer Charlotte d’Amboise (Mann’s real-life wife) gets a beautiful turn with her solo in “Spread a Little Sunshine.” Erik Altemus has fun as Lewis, Pippin’s narcissistic stepbrother.

    Amid flaming props and pressure from the Players, Pippin must decide whether to commit “the only completely perfect act” in the Players’ repertoire, thus proving himself extraordinary by their standards, or to choose a simple life with Catherine and Theo. Can a life that’s ordinary be extraordinary itself? That’s for Pippin to figure out. A coda to the finale, involving Theo and the Leading Player, suggests the entire cycle is destined to repeat. 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.

    “Pippin,” at the Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St., for an open-ended run. Tickets: $59-$148. Call 212-239-6200, or visit Telecharge.com.

    Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn