Pippin (Broadway Revival)
Dir. Diane Paulus (with illusions by Paul Kieve & circus acts created by Gary Snyder)
Starring. Patina Miller, Matthew James Thomas, Terence Mann, Charlotte D’Amboise, Erik Altemus, Rachel Bay Jones & Andrea Martin.
I caught the recent revival of Pippin with a friend who was visiting and, despite not knowing much about the show (other than this production used a variety of circus and acrobat performers), I came out quite impressed with the production if not with the musical itself. The cast is ace all around offering great highlights: Miller’s Fosse moves, Martin’s sing-along, Amboise’s dance number, Altemus’s mustache, Mann’s unicycling, Thomas’s “Flesh,” & Jones’s humor all get a chance to shine.
What really got my attention was the circus conceit. It’s a fascinating switch from the “players” imagined by the original production, mostly because it introduces an element of danger and audience anxiety not present if you deal with mere players. Several times, the production plays with this notion, making us hold our breath while Martin is dangling from an acrobat, or when Thomas is goaded into jumping into a pit of fire. That danger — inherent in circus performance — raises the stakes for what Pippin is trying to say about following any sort of scripted (be it ordinary or extraordinary) life, though it ultimately can never escape the dated 1970s motivational beats in Hirson’s book and Schwartz’s music, what I call the Boomer Self-Help message inherent in the musical. Pippin is not a river (he doesn’t need a place to ramble) nor an eagle (he needs no place where he can fly); he’s just an ordinary man who can find fulfillment in his own backyard (filled, we must say, with a variety of expressive chickens and pigs at that!); if anything this new production tells us that he’d rather turn his back from the exhilarating highs (and dangers!) of the circus to live a quiet life of labor and love. And yes, this does get a bit upended by the ending that sees Theo continuing the journey Pippin cuts short by the time the circus tent is brought down; it adds a darker turn to what is an all too neat “ordinary” family values ending. But if he follows Pippin into the circus, what makes us think he won’t leave just the same way his step-father did?
That said, I was mesmerized by the acrobats, in particular Orion Griffiths (you can read more about his background here; he’s from a circus family and a prodigy circus kid at that!), not just because he looks like this:
Or because he can do this:
But because he clearly commanded the stage even when he was in the background. His rolla bolla is one of the clear highlights of the production. I will say this, his charm and charisma are as imposing as his thighs. I’d say they alone are worth the price of the ticket but that’d be unfair to the game cast which really raises the production to be a one of a kind theatrical event that is as thrilling as going to the circus — if circuses also offered you a chance to marvel at Martin & Miller’s Tony-winning performances, of course.