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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
PIPPIN
at American Repertory Theater, Cambridge Mass.

DEATH DEFYING
By BILL STEVENSON


It's high time Stephen Schwartz's Pippin returned to Broadway. Many of us didn't get to see the long-running original production (1972-77) and had to make due with the cast album. Well, Pippin is finally coming back to Broadway in March, and the good news is that the cast and Diane Paulus' staging are sensational. Much of Bob Fosse's choreography has been skillfully recreated by Chet Walker, who danced in the original production. And Paulus had the inspired idea of incorporating acrobatics and other circus tricks courtesy of Gyspy Snider of the Montreal-based troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main. The result is theatrical magic, a feast for the eyes as well as the ears.
 
Even before the show starts, one is struck by Scott Pask's circus-tent backdrop, which is painted a gorgeous blue. Trapezes hang above the middle of the stage, and they will get a workout. Paulus and Snider incorporate acrobatics throughout the show, adding visual excitement. As Paulus notes in the program, the circus world "mirrors Pippin's death-defying mission to find what makes him special." The stunts fit in with Schwartz's catchy songs and Roger O. Hirson's funny book, though they at times overshadow Walker's choreography, which is "in the style of Bob Fosse."
 
Ben Vereen was, of course, the Leading Player in the 1970s production. The Leading Player has had a sex change, and it works out just fine. Patina Miller (Sister Act,  Hair) has one of the most thrilling voices in contemporary theater, and she lets 'er rip in "Magic to Do" and "Glory." Noticeably lean and mean, she appears to have been sent to Fosse dance camp for at least a few months.
 
As Pippin, the son of Charlemagne who is earnestly trying to find himself, Matthew James Thomas is a real discovery. He is nicely unaffected and believable as the callow youth of the first act. He also has a much stronger voice than the original Pippin, John Rubinstein, and sings the heck out of "Corner of the Sky." In the second act he has excellent chemistry with Rachel Bay Jones, who plays Pippin's love interest, Catherine.
 
The stellar supporting players do some enjoyable scene stealing, as well as a few tricks of their own. Andrea Martin plays the old granny Berthe, who tells Pippin to "start livin'" in "No Time at All." She may have only one big song, but Martin belts part of it while hanging from a trapeze. It's a life-affirming, goosebump-inducing star turn that may well earn her another Tony Award. As Charles, a.k.a. Charlemagne, Terrence Mann displays his comic chops as well as his commanding voice. He even manages to unicycle across the stage at one point. Charlotte D'Amboise is a great choice to play Fastrada, Pippin's stepmother, and delivers a coyly witty rendition of "Spread a Little Sunshine."
 
The second act of Pippin is something of a letdown since most of the best songs are in the first act. There is also less opportunity for flashy dancing and acrobatics. But in the emotionally rich ending, Paulus and her actors locate the heart of this sweet tale. Thomas and Jones turn out to be fine actors as well as singers. And playing Catherine's son, Theo, Andrew Cekala gives one of the best performances by a child actor I've seen in years.
 
All in all, Paulus and company's Pippin is a triumph. Schwartz's songs have aged remarkably well, as has Fosse's choreography. The addition of acrobatics just makes the musical even sexier, more dynamic and more invigorating. More than 40 years after its first Broadway debut, Pippin is an audiovisual knockout. I can't wait to see it again.

 


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