Theater review by Adam Feldman. Music Box Theatre (Broadway). Book by Roger O. Hirson. Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Dir. Diane Paulus. With Matthew James Thomas, Patina Miller, Rachel Bay Jones. 2hrs 30mins. One intermission.
[Note: Kyle Dean Massey, Ciara Renée and Annie Potts, respectively, are now playing the roles originated by Matthew James Thomas, Patina Miller and Andrea Martin.]
Ladies and gentlemen, step right up to the greatest show of the Broadway season: Diane Paulus’s sensational cirque-noir revival of Pippin. Here, in all its grand and dubious glory, is musical-theater showmanship at its best, a thrilling evening of art and craftiness spiked with ambivalence about the nature of enthrallment. Chet Walker’s dances, which retain the pelvic thrust of Bob Fosse’s original choreography, are a viciously precise mockery of showbiz bump and grind, enacted by a sexy, sinister, improbably limber ensemble (in skintight carnival gear and medieval costumery). Circus elements created by Gypsy Snider—acrobatics, aerialism, contortionism, juggling, hula hoops—build momentum toward what the ringmaster assures us is “a climax you will remember for the rest of your lives.” That just might be true.
Beneath the production’s over-the-big-top trappings is Roger O. Hirson and Stephen Schwartz’s 1972 musical, a slight but resonant parable stuffed with delightful songs. A pretty youth named Pippin (the creamy-skinned Matthew James Thomas, appealingly ingenuous) embarks on a journey to find meaning in his life, guided by the predatory Leading Player (a ferocious Patina Miller, with two rows of teeth agleam and hips that snap like switchblades). First he seeks fulfillment in battle, like his kingly father (a droll Terrence Mann); then he samples pleasures of the flesh, urged on by his grandmother Berthe (comic marvel Andrea Martin, in a knockout scene that earns a midshow standing ovation). But Pippin’s picaresque stalls in Act II, when he meets a widow, Catherine (the superb Rachel Bay Jones, in a lovable and expertly layered turn). Somehow sunny and cloudy at once, Jones grounds Pippin in a reality beyond the Leading Player’s groovy hard sell, and the show’s messages—about the perils of personal exceptionalism and the lures of empty celebrity—come through with force in the end. Yet for all its skepticism about entertainment, Pippin offers it par excellence. Number after number stops the show, but the show goes insistently, dazzlingly on.—Adam Feldman
RECOMMENDED: Video montage of Pippin on Broadway
Follow Adam Feldman on Twitter: @FeldmanAdam