Friday, January 04, 2013

When You're Extraordinary, You Do Extraordinary Things - Review of "Pippin" at the A.R.T.

American Repertory Theater's 
production of

music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
book by Roger O. Hirson
directed by Diane Paulus
circus choreography by Gypsy Snider
choreography by Chet Walker in the style of Bob Fosse

Royal heir Pippin is spurred on by a mysterious group of performers to embark on a death-defying journey to find his “corner of the sky.” Pippin has become a staple of the American Musical canon, noted for many memorable songs including Corner of the Sky, Magic To Do, l Guess I’ll Miss The Man, Glory, No Time at All, Morning Glow, and Love Song.

"When You're Extraordinary, You Do Extraordinary Things"

These words are not just lyrics sung by the title character of Pippin as he struggles to define his quest for meaning in life.  The same phrase also applies in spades to the entire team responsible for the production of "Pippin" that opened last evening at the American Repertory Theater.  Diane Paulus, A.R.T. Artistic Director directed this extraordinary production.  She has set a high standard for the works that she has birthed at A.R.T. - both at the main stage Loeb Theater and at the Oberon down the street at the other end of Harvard Square.  Ms. Paulus has outdone herself with this production.  I am grasping for superlatives here - stunningly beautiful, brilliantly conceived, innovatively staged, existentially transformative.  It is, in short, an evening at the theater not to be missed.  A triumph!

Let me try to deconstruct some of the elements that make this such a stupendously successful show that soars like an eagle.
  • The foundation is the wonderful original book by Roger O. Hirson, the memorable music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and the Broadway production that delighted New York audiences 40 years ago and ran for five years.
  • Building upon that solid rock, Paulus has conceived of some fascinating ways to make a 40-year old show fresh and timely.  There are three elements that I find present in almost every show that Paulus touches: somehow challenging traditional gender roles, using every possible inch of three-dimensional performance space in the theater, and demolishing the "fourth wall" that separates audience members from players.
  • The Players who surround Pippin and accompany him on his metaphysical journey of self-discovery also comment upon the progress he is making - or lack of progress in some cases.  The Lead Player is a one-person Greek chorus and ringmaster rolled into one.  Originally played by Ben Vereen on Broadway, the Lead Player in this production is now female, flawlessly portrayed by the incomparable Patina Miller.  When I first learned that this character would be played by a female, I was skeptical, but I was won  over by this bold choice.  I find that Miller's portrayal of this pivotal character is even more effective than the original staging and casting. Her smile - sometimes genuine and warm and at other times a chilling rictus - invites the audience to come along on an adventure that promises to end in a spectacular "Grand Finale."  Her singing, her dancing, her narrative comments and her very compelling presence anchor the show and the journey that Pippin and the audience embark on together.

  • The central theme of "Pippin"  can be stated simply in these words: "How far are you willing to go to be extraordinary?"  As Diane Paulus pondered how best to translate the acting out of that question to the confines of the Loeb Main Stage, she thought of the talented, Gypsy Snider, co-founder of "Les 7 Doigts de la Main," a Montreal-based troupe of acrobats and circus performers.  Adding in members of this troupe as some of the Players would add a physical texture and dimension to the exploration of what it takes to be extraordinary.  As a result, the Loeb has been magically transformed into a circus tent set in the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne.  The amazing physical feats that the Players perform are not just there for "sizzle";  they, in fact, add "marbling" to the filet mignon that is the Pippin narrative. They became an additional and essential element in the telling of this story of the young prince's Quixotic quest for significance.

  • In her desire to stay true to the original vision of "Pippin" while at the same time innovating, Paulus invited composer Stephen Schwartz to collaborate with her on this new production.  The result of this collaboration is some new orchestration, some tweaked lyrics, an altered ending and a fresh approach that Schwartz both celebrates and endorses.
  • In like manner, she wanted to preserve as much as possible of the original Bob Fosse choreography, so she teamed up with Chet Walker, who performed under Fosse's direction in the original Broadway production of "Pippin."  The dancing is classic Fosse - jazz hands, stylized movements, precision ensemble work, flamboyant solo twirls, hats, canes.  It is all there and it is wonderful.
  • I need to add a comment about how seamlessly Walker's choreography meshes with the acrobatic movements of the Players as choreographed by Gypsy Snider.  Every element flows together without a hitch, like the transmission on a top-of-the-line Ferrari.
  • The next piece in building the new production was to find the best available cast members.  The assembled cast is a flawless amalgam of seasoned Broadway veterans and fresh young faces oozing with talent, energy and style.  There are no weak links in this cast.  
  • Matthew James Thomas, fresh from his role as Peter Parker in Broadway's "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," seems to have been born to play the role of Pippin.  His voice, which can soar like a rock star when the moment calls for that level of panache, is at its best in the more subtle, quiet and intimate moments - especially his "Love Song" with Catherine, as well as the moving "Morning Glow."
  • Terrence Mann offers up a wonderfully nuanced Charlemagne - bombastic, sarcastic, dogmatic and regal. His list of Broadway, TV and film credits and accolades is impressive.  He does everything imaginable on stage in this role - juggling and throwing knives, singing, declaiming in stentorian tones, riding a unicycle, being resurrected from the dead!  He is a force of nature as Charlemagne.
  • Rachel Bay Jones as Catherine is lovably ditsy and moving in her vulnerability and desire to domesticate Pippin and keep him down on the farm to help raise her son, Theo, run the estate and keep her bed warm.   Her forlorn and ironic "I Guess I'll Miss the Man" is one of many highlights in the show.
  • Andrea Martin, an Emerson College grad, is unforgettable as Berthe, Pippin's grandmother.  Her version of "No Time at All" involves the audience, stops the show and introduces a wonderful  sequence that would have to be described as another A.R.T. "coup de theatre."

  • Andrew Cekala, as Catherine's son, Theo, brings just the right combination of innocence, attitude, wonder and sense of adventure to this role.
  • Charlotte d'Amboise as Charlemagne's trophy wife, Fastrada, is catty and conniving.  Her dancing, that brought her a Tony nomination for her Cassie in "A Chorus Line," is elegant and totally Fosse-esque..
  • Erik Altemus plays Lewis, Fastrada's son and Pippin's half-brother and chief rival.  He brings a wonderful archness to the role, as well as a perfect physical presence to the warrior prince.  His mustache alone is worth the price of admission!
  • Orion Griffiths is one of the Players/acrobats.  He performs a feat of balancing that has to be seen to be believed.  I am told that he is one of two individuals in the world able to perform this feat.

  • The other Players, an exquisite assortment of acrobats,  singers and dancers are uniformly wonderful - even extraordinary.  They deserve to be called out by name: Gregory Arsenal, Lolita Costet, Colin Cunliffe, Andrew Fitch, Viktoria Grimmy, Olga Karmansky, Bethany Moore, Stephanie Pope, Philip Rosenberg, Yannick Thomas, Molly Tynes and Anthony Wayne.
  • I must not neglect to mention the rest of the creative team - lighting, sound, costumes, orchestra, set design, casting, stage management - all conspired together with Diane Paulus to bring a rebirth to a show that deserved to be dusted off and brought back to life.
Allow me to add a few additional personal comments to the experience of being present at Opening Night.  I usually judge a night at the theater as successful  when I have experienced chills running up and down my spine at least one time, and tears cascading down my cheeks.  When I experience both sensations together in the first act - as I did last night - everything that follows is gravy!  This is a deeply moving re-telling of a challenging and provocative tale.

As I read back through the words I have written, it strikes me that everything I have said about this show is positive and glowing.  A proper review should add some element of criticism, some insightful critique to demonstrate that the reviewer is not just writing  a "puff piece."  One of the final lines spoken by The Lead Player as she responds to Pippin's decision to "compromise," is fitting here.  She turns to the audience and says: "We apologize for our failure to bring you the Grand Finale we promised."  So, if you are looking for me to poke holes in some aspect of this production, I apologize.  I simply can't find an area that I would change.  I stand by these philosphic words of wisdom: "If it ain't broke . .. "

At the party that followed the performance, Diane Paulus made the announcement that final arrangements have been made to move this production to Broadway's Music Box Theater.  Previews will begin March 23 with Opening Night scheduled for April 25.  More details to  follow.

The show will be running at the A.R.T. only through January 20.  Tickets are going fast.  Click on this link now:

"We've got magic to do - just for you."

Don't miss it.  It is - in a word - extraordinary!



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