The circus has come to town. Oh, wait, sorry. Did I say circus? What I meant to say is that Pippin has come to town. But what with all the spring-loaded acrobats, trapeze artists and gymnasts cart-wheeling and somersaulting across the stage and through silver rings in this loud, misshapen revival of the 1972 hit musical (did I mention that it was loud?), you can understand my confusion. All that’s missing are clowns. Perhaps those would be the investors.
I didn’t see the original production, which was notable for Bob Fosse’s signature side-shuffling, knee-knocking, shoulder-rolling choreography and flashy direction. Its opening number, “Magic to Do,” a pile-up of white-gloved hands against a black backdrop, was merely the first in a series of arresting bits of stage business designed to cover up the Brecht-lite story: the journey of the title character, the just-out-of-university son of Charlemagne, to self-fulfillment and inner peace. Understandably, mid-life crises came earlier in medieval times. But Pippin had a few other things to recommend it: a counter-culture overlay – this included a breaching of the fourth wall – which seemed just right for the youth quake era; Stephen Schwartz’s often appealing pop-inflected score; the showcasing of a young dancer named Ann Reinking; and Ben Vereen’s sinuous, insinuating performance as the musical’s “leading player,” a combination of narrator, spirit guide and devilish provocateur.
In Diane Paulus’ busy, busy re-imagining, Pippin’s story of self-discovery is told with the aid of a circus troupe. Nothing wrong with that in theory, I suppose. One could argue, after all, that the title character is walking a tightrope of sorts. But everyone seems to be working at cross-purposes. It’s as if a venue had been inadvertently double-booked and the promoters had finally thrown up their hands and decided to let both shows go on simultaneously. Logic, nuance, stylistic and period consistency and coherent storytelling have all been kicked to the curb.
Matthew James Thomas as the title character barely registers. But I liked Terence Mann as Charlemagne and Charlotte D’Amboise as his sexy conniving second wife, Fastrada (the two are also married in real life). But as played by D’Amboise, Fastrada isn’t simply younger; she seems centuries younger – all ready to be a part of the first season of “The Real Housewives of the Holy Roman Empire.” For her part, Andrea Martin as Pippin’s very game grandmother is like Bubbie from Boca. The leading player – or should I say ringmaster – is a woman (Patina Miller) who is tall, lithe, stunning and, in her self-consciously knowing performance, utterly without charm.