Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Cirque Du Pippin

You known you've been around this planet for a long time when Broadway shows you actually saw are remade in your lifetime.  Such is the case with the 2013 revival of "Pippin."  It seems like I just saw it.  And, abracadabra hocus pocus, it's back.  Didn't I just see the original last month?  It sure seems like it. 

Indeed, I had a bumpy ride to my experience with the first "Pippin."  It's not like I ran to see it originally.  But, you see, I had a college suite mate who was in love with the musical.  The soundtrack played over and over in our apartment as if it was Muzak in Nordstrom's.  By the end of senior year, I had barely passed Music Appreciation but I sure could sing every song in the show.  I had no clue about the story attached, but I was golden with all the lyrics.

Ultimately, I did see the show.  It was very close to the end of the run and a radio salesperson had given me house seats.  It was one of those January nights on Broadway when the temperature hovered around three degrees and there were even less people in the orchestra to see "Pippin." 

I figured I was done with it, except for a TV version that brought back original star Ben Vereen to the Leading Player role he originated on Broadway.  I finally saw what all the fuss was about and why I had endured that soundtrack all through senior year.  He literally stole the show.  Slick and magical, Vereen was the lifeforce of that musical.  So why the hell did they call it "Pippin?"

Well, I figured that out when I saw the new revival which is playing to overzealous crowds at the Music Box Theater.  Because, without Ben Vereen, the focus of the musical is back on the main character of young Pippin.  And probably more suited to what the originators had in mind years ago. 

Don't get me wrong.  The original was also elevated by some nifty Bob Fosse work with those cool jazz hands in the dark.  And a bare essentials set that wrapped the audience into an intimate setting that was truly befitting the saga of Pippin, the son of Charlemagne. 

Well, in 2013, intimacy is out the window.  There's plenty more magic to do.  And lots and lots and lots of circus acts.  I immediately scan the Playbill.  Is Ed Sullivan listed as producer?  When does the Russian dog act appear?  Oh, wait, here comes Fido on cue.

From an original production which looked like it was staged for about $1.49, "Pippin" in 2013 is part musical, part Cirque Du Soleil, and part Atlantis Casino in Vegas.  If there's something you don't like on the left side of the stage, simply scan your eyes across.  There's bound to be something else that makes you smile.  A tap-dancing woman who's missing her body from the waist up.  A talking head in a crate.  Lots and lots and lots of dancing on a pole.  Where did they hold the auditions for this show?  In the Bada Bing over in Jersey?

The original story is the same.  Pippin is trying to find his way through life.  Given the frantic activity on stage, I'm surprised the boy can find his way from his dressing room.  He's being led by the ubiquitous Leading Player who, in the years since Vereen essayed the role, has apparently been to Denmark for a sex change operation.  Patina Miller stars in the role now and conjures up less Ben Vereen and more Marla Gibbs from "The Jeffersons."  She's loud, brassy, and occasionally annoying.   But since the Leading Player is now played by a weaker actor, an amazing thing happens.  With the balance now evened out between the main characters, the show is now focused on....wait for it, Pippin.  The way it should be. 

The Broadway God taketh it away and then the Broadway God giveth.

There is so much going on in this show that it's an ideal first Broadway show for any child on Ritalin.  It moves so fast that you don't have time to think whether you liked or detested the last production number.  Indeed, though, since the original "Pippin" music has arrived intact and unsullied, you will most likely remember that you liked the last production number.

Matthew James Thomas is Pippin and he gives you the youthful exurberance and innocence that is truly required.  And, without a Leading Player that is sucking the air out of the theater, his performance stands out even more.  At the beginning of the second act, the cast is interpersed all tbroughout the theater.  Pippin wound up in my aisle up in the front mezzanine.  As he exited, he gave me a high five on the way out.  As a result, this show is memorable for giving me two seconds of fame as part of a Broadway musical.

Back in the original production, the feisty role of Pippin's grandmother was played by Irene Ryan of "The Beverly Hillbillies."  She was about 72 at the time and all that was required with her big number, "No Time at All" was to bounce around the stage and emphasize the word "Granny" in her song.  But, in 2013, we have the always dependable Andrea Martin who's already 66 herself.  That, however, doesn't stop her from taking this solo to new heights.  


Soaring above the stage on a trapeze and eventually hanging by her feet.  I squinted hard to see the wires left over from some Cathy Rigby production of "Peter Pan."  I saw none.  This is a true theatrical achievement.  A moment that flies high.  


In its truest definition, this is the classic Broadway "11 PM showstopping number."  The response to Andrea is raucous and resulting in a two minute standing ovation.

The only trouble is that it's only 8:40PM.  While a great moment, the number temporarily knocks the entire show off its axis.  The pace is destroyed and it takes at least five minutes for both the cast and the audience to recover.  

But, that's the thing about "Pippin" in 2013.  There are no rules or conventions.  It's big.  It's loud.  It's boisterous.  

And, ultimately, just a little bit less of what it likely was originally.  The audience, of course, expects all of the hoopla, acrobatics, and bright colors.  These days, Broadway is essentially "attention deficit theater."  Sure, there will be a lot of early visitors to "Pippin" who are the true Broadway-philes.  Comparing notes to what they saw forty years ago and then grousing about the "good old days."  Once they've paid their way in, the audience to "Pippin" will be comprised of what the New York theater going demographic has sadly morphed into.

Lou and Mabel vacationing in the Big Apple from Bumfuk, Iowa.  Happy to be in town on one of their annual holidays with the others, of course, being to Vegas and maybe Branson, Missouri.  For them, the bright lights and all the whooping and hollering is perfect.  Maybe they'll even manage to sneak a bag of Cheetos into the theater.  And, if it's not too late a night, they can get up early tomorrow and head over to the "Today Show" where perhaps Al Roker will wave at them.

So, by amping up "Pippin" to histrionic proportions, the producers are just fitting into the new Broadway business plan.  You really can't blame them.  It's what is required in 2013.  You'll have a really fun time in the theater with this show.

Just don't get angry when it suddenly doesn't become 1972 all over again.

Dinner last night:  Had a big lunch so just a chicken sandwich.


Puck said...

I loved the original -- wore out the album and a CD in later life. I am curious to see, as you mention, a more even balance between the Leading Player and Pippin -- Ben Vereen's performance overshadowed everything 40 years ago. I'm even more interested to see how a 1970s musical translates to today's audiences -- sounds like the producers were hedging their bets with all the circus-like attractions.

Len said...

And, folks, the comment above from Puck is noteworthy. He's the guy who played the soundtrack album in our dorm apartment over and over.