“Think about your life, Pippin…” sings the enigmatic Lead Player to “Pippin“, Charlemagne’s son in Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson’s musical masterpiece of the same name. Now, to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of this dazzling gem of song-and-dance (that’s been long over due for a revival) a bold new re-envisioning has at last been mounted at the American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T ) near the world-famous Harvard University in Cambridge Massachusetts. With Previews having begun on December 5th, it opens on January 3rd, 2013 at the Loeb Drama Center’s theatre, and plays through January 20th.
Given the recent trend of ‘resurrecting’ musicals from the late 60’s/early 70’s (“Hair”, “Jesus Christ Super Star”, “Godspell”, etc.) it isn’t surprising that this one’s turn has finally arrived; what IS surprising is how “Pippin” continues to speak to today’s audiences every bit as much as it did back during it’s initial “extraordinary” 1,944 performances from 1972 through 1977! Similarly, while at this early date nothing is yet confirmed “officially”, there is affirmative indication that ‘there has been some interest expressed” in bringing this production on to “The Great White Way” by March of this year. Why wait though when its more-intimate, out-front styling is so perfectly suited to the Loeb Drama Center’s intimate 540 seat house?
Pippin, first son and heir to Emperor “Charles The Great’s” vast kingdom is spurred on by a mysterious group of roving players to embark on a death-defying journey of self-discovery in his quest to move out from behind his illustrious father’s shadow and at last find his own “Corner Of The Sky”. Along the way he experiences military campaigns, political intrigue and various sexual escapades. There‘s even (so promises the opening number) “Sex presented ‘pastorally’”; but Pippin soon finds that if left unchecked, he can find himself “caged” (–in this case literally at one point during a sequence christened “The Flesh Ballet”, ) by his own passions! In due course though, our hero manages to stumble upon romantic love with a young widow named Katherine, which ultimately offers him, if not complete fulfillment, at least the chance for lasting happiness.
Favoring the “Midway” over the “Medieval”, Director Dianne Paulus creates a raucous-but-festive circus-mood, introducing the cast as an acrobatic band of “Big Top” roustabouts as opposed to the Byzantine traveling troupe of the original; nonetheless, audience members may still rest assured Chet Walker‘s choreography definitely takes on the style of Bob Fosse‘s truly ground-breaking original–serving as terrific tribute to the old master showman. Additionally, this time around some remarkable– and frequently eye-popping–‘circus choreography’ has been incorporated into all the on-stage goings on, courtesy of ‘Gypsy’ Snider of the Montreal-based Cirque, “Le 7 Doigts De La Main“ (“The Seven Digits Of The Hand”.) Word is during the rehearsal process, a group from the cast even paid a visit to the “Big Apple Circus”” to get a greater feel for what they were striving toward.
Scott Pask’s set-design recalls the interior of a billowy, expansive circus tent, and is utilized, and even enhanced, by Kenneth Posner’s pristine lighting design which runs the gamut from bright, airy, and colorful to dark, shadowy and at times, down right foreboding. In fact, so important to the production is this ‘atmospheric lighting’ that it wouldn’t be too off-base to even consider it as an un-credited character in it’s own right!
The cast is comprised of A-Plus talent culled from some of the theater’s hottest recent offerings, all led by Matthew James Thomas in the all-important title role. Already something of a teen idol in the UK for his role as “Jez Tyler” on the hit series “Britannia High“, Thomas was most recently seen stateside in “Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark”. Here, he’s offered a potentially “Star-making” vehicle with which to be introduced to a still wider American audience. Joining him, fresh off the pre-Broadway tour of “Christmas Story-The Musical” is Rachel Bay-Jones as Katherine, Pippin’s love interest who, in her folksy-yet-mellow introductory song “Ordinary Kind Of Woman”, describes herself as “Conservative with a budget, liberal with a meal, just your everyday, average ideal!” Also appearing is Andrew Cekala as her little boy, Theo.
Likewise, the more seasoned ‘character’ actors in the cast are every bit as impressive, starting with Tony-Award Winner and SCTV alum, Andrea Martin as Pippin’s plucky Grandmother Berthe, who is given one of the score’s most memorable show-stoppers in ”No Time At All”; while Terrence Mann, renowned for his turns in “Les Miserables”, “”Beauty & The Beast” and “The Addams Family”, herein majestically takes the stage as Pippin’s father, Charlemagne. Meanwhile, the leggy and awesome Charlotte D’Amboise portrays Pippin’s villainous step-mother “Fastrada”, seething with ambition-masked-as-charm and spreading “A Little Sunshine” (even as she plots her husband’s downfall.) Rounding out the company is former “Sister Act” star, Patina Miller who takes on the role of the seductively charismatic “Lead Player”–the one persona on stage who quite literally brings the entire show together. Originally made famous by Ben Vereen, the part has traditionally been cast as male; however, keeping Ms. Miller’s mode of dress basically androgynous, actually adds to the character’s overall mystery and theatricality; moreover, this everyman/woman concept actually comes off as surprisingly effective in those moments (–both musical and non) in which she acts as Pippin’s guide or conscience such as in “On The Right Track” or the more sinister “Finale“.
The original production won a whopping nine “Tony Awards” including “Best Direction Of A Musical“ and “Best Choreography” for Bob Fosse, “Best Scenic Design“ and “Best Featured Actor In A Musical“ for Ben Vereen. Stephen Schwartz’s lively, jivey score encompasses both contemporary rhythms along with plenty of good old-fashioned tin-pan alley-inspired melodies. Out of them has come such modern standards as “Cornier Of The Sky” “Magic To Do”, “Morning Glow”, and the rousing “Extraordinary”. Little wonder so many critics still rank it among Schwartz’s very best work ever. It’s interesting to consider too, how many other ‘regional productions’ can boast having their celebrated composer on-hand to oversee and attend the first run through with a full orchestra? Nonetheless, that’s exactly what’s happened here! Then again, The American Repertory Theatre is one of the leading “Not For Profit” theatre companies in the U.S. A.R.T. has launched such recent top “Tony Award” contending productions, as “Porgy & Bess” and last year’s “Best Musical” winner, “Once”. What’s more, in 1982 A.R.T. received the Pulitzer Prize which was followed not long after by the “Tony Award” for “Outstanding Regional Theater” in 1986.
So “Shout it out from the highest towers!“ As the songs says, “There‘s magic to do“–and the cast and crew of The American Repertory Theatre’s “Pippin” are doing just that! Evening curtain-times are 7:30 PM; 2:00 for Saturday and Sunday Matinees. Special ASL-Interpreted performances will be held Tuesday, January 8 @ 7:30pm and Sunday, January 13 @ 2:00pm, while two presentations with supplementary ‘Audio Description’ for the viewing impaired will be held on Wednesday, January 9 @ 7:30pm and Saturday, January 12 @ 2:00pm. To all lovers of exceptional musical theatre who find themselves in the Massachusetts area as the New Year begins: “Leave your field to flower” and check out this magnificent revival of this genuine American classic! The Loeb Drama Center is located at 64 Brattle Street, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Tickets can be obtained by calling (617) 547-8300 or logging onto: Http://www.amrep.org/events/show/pippin
Productions Photos By Michael J. Lutch; Rehearsal Photo By Kevin H.Lin, All Photos Courtesy of American Repertory Theater. additional Thanks to the staff of American Repertory Theater and the cast and crew of A.R.T.’s “Pippin” for making this story possible.