Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Pippin is Joyous!

Pippin has burst onto Broadway as a traveling show of wonder – aflame for a moment only, but dazzling with flash and verve.  All the shinier for those who haven’t seen it before, or have a dim memory from the 1980 broadcast of it.  This Pippin is a feast of color, a flurry of feathered costumes and a marvel of daredevil tricks, but  underneath lies the story of a young man trying to make sense of his place in life.  Pippin is what James Franco's Wizard would have life be like if he could really do magic.  The tricks are obvious, the flare is false, but the emotions shown by Matthew James Thomas as Pippin are gut wrenching.
Patina Miller and Company (Erik Altemus on far right)

The story is basic, almost unimportant and yet quite a bit of fun.  Pippin is the heir apparent to King Charlemagne.  He is sent off to school before the show starts and we meet him upon his graduation.  Freshly educated, young Pippin wants to do Great Things with his life, but he isn’t sure what those Great Things are.  And so, he sets out to find his own greatness.
Pippin is supported, counseled and guided by the Leading Player, Patina Miller in a turn so different from Sister Act you wonder if the credits are somehow wrong.  Patina Miller inhabits the role first created by Ben Vereen, and they are large shoes to fill; but Ms. Miller does it all just as well and in heels.  She is as charming, beguiling and intriguing as the snake in Eden.  She moves with a liquid grace and can light up The Music Box with her eyes.  She is great.  Pippin, and the audience, is enthralled.
Pippin’s father and stepmother are played by veterans Terrence Mann and Charlotte d’Amboise.  Mr. Mann bellows lines with a wink and a grin that is appropriately imperious in nature.  Ms. d’Amboise schemes to put her son (lithe Erik Altemus in a lithe and hammy turn as the usurper) on the throne.  Ms. d’Amboise breaks out in wondrous dance, credited as “in the style of Bob Fosse”, for her number.  These two know how to work the stage and relate to the audience.  In Pippin, nearly all the players break the 4th wall, with the exception of our young hero who is earnestly trying to find answers.
Andrea Martin as Pippin's Grandmother schools Matthew James Thomas
When Andrea Martin arrives as Pippin’s grandmother, the 4th wall isn’t broken, but moved to the back of the theater.  Ms. Martin pulls the audience into the show in a way that is hilarious, fun and infectious.  If you haven't yet, you will fall in love with Andrea Martin.
Director Diana Paulus has amped up the background into Technicolor with the incorporation of the circus performers of Les 7 doigts de la main.  These gymnasts, aerialists and strongmen weave a constant and beguiling sideshow vibe throughout the show (and no, there are no clowns).  They pull Pippin into the temptation of the moment, of the glamorous and of the hyper-real.   It is effective on Pippin and entertaining to all.
Matthew James Thomas as Pippin and Rachel Bay Jones as Catherine in a quiet moment
Rachel Bay Jones plays Catherine, the widow that introduces Pippin to love and monotony – to the joy of a job well done and the disappointment that it must be well done again tomorrow.  Ms. Jones does a wonderful job with the role; she makes the mundane appealing.
The heart of the show is Matthew James Thomas as Pippin, and an astounding heart it is.  Mr. Thomas forever seems like a puppy who finds his footing at the last possible minute.  His joy in life is only matched by his frustration in not finding his Calling - with a Capital C. Even his voice sometimes wavers early, only to deliver power and purity as he gains momentum.
I fear overselling the show, because high expectations often lead to let downs.   I myself went in with no expectations.  And there are some problems with the show.  The music is a little simple in spots and the second half is, reasonably, slower.  But Pippin is joyous and you are guaranteed to walk out of The Music Box with a smile on your face.
Book: Roger O. Hirson, Music & Lyrics: Stephen Schwartz
Director: Diane Paulus
Cast: Matthew James Thomas, Patina Miller, Terrence Mann, Charlotte d’Amboise, Rachel Bay Janes, Andrea Miller, Erik Altemus

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