Once enough restrictions had finally been eased to allow theatres to tentatively reopen in September, the first productions to step out on stage were necessarily on the austere side. Substantially reduced audience capacities took a chunk out of the box office, so making economies on production values was par for the course. While it was a relief to see IRL performances return to the visceral space of the auditorium, the absence of large casts or impressive sets gave little spectacle or fanfare to theatre’s post-lockdown revival.
By contrast, the first big-budget musical to open in Sydney since the Beforetime has so much relentless razzle-dazzle, it almost seems to be making up for lost time. The 1972-penned Pippin is a high-energy carnival featuring circus acrobatics, vaudevillian schtick, high kicks, jazz hands, plenty of earworms and... medieval French history. Yes, you read that correctly. It’s a show that holds nothing back, except perhaps the reason why composer Stephen Schwartz (best known for megahits like Wicked and Godspell) thought this particular story was ripe for Broadway.
The show follows our titular hero, the restless son of Frankish king Charlemagne, as he attempts to find a raison d’etre worth living for. Pippin’s search for meaning leads him to war, to sex, even to murder, but eventually, it is the simple pleasures of family love that fulfill his dreams of an extraordinary life.
Superimposed on this slice of seventh-century European courtly drama is a thoroughly American brand of song and dance, with a trippy, circus-infused, meta-theatrical twist. Overseeing the action, the Leading Player (that’s the enigmatic title of this role) is the ringleader of a circus troupe, but one that seems to exist in some existential hinterland, outside of time or history. Under the canvas of her ageless big top, she seems to wield almost godly powers over Pippin’s emotional awakening, as she and her cavalcade of performers attempt to guide him towards a glorious yet deadly finale. The historical inspiration for the narrative becomes increasingly sidelined as the show progresses until it unexpectedly shapeshifts into a deep philosophical parable about the purpose and folly of ambition without meaning.
It’s a lot to wrap your head around, and indeed, you’ll likely find yourself confused at times as to what, who and where your attentions should be focused. The pace of the story can be jarringly lumpy and for reasons that aren’t exactly clear (other than the fact this is a show of the sexually liberated ‘70s), there’s an awful lot of eroticism, including a 10-minute pan-sexual circus orgy. But once you’ve surrendered yourself to the baffling strangeness of its many odd juxtapositions, Pippin reveals itself as a show with a helluva lot of heart that delivers Entertainment with a capital E.
And this is in no small part due to the calibre of its very capable cast. Ashley Melham, who wowed Aussie audiences in the Australian premiere of Disney Theatrical's Aladdin in 2018, is a thoroughly charming Pippin, managing to make a rather irritatingly fickle character largely likeable. Gabrielle McClinton, who is a veteran of the role on Broadway, is a powerhouse as the Leading Player, the absolute exemplar of the ‘triple threat’. Kerri-Anne Kennerley steals the show (or at least a portion of it) in her short yet unforgettable turn as Pippin’s overly horny grandmother Berthe, and one of Australian theatre’s most venerated luminaries, Simon Burke, brings a brilliantly judged infusion of camp to the role of King Charles. While her role is comparatively small, the extraordinary Lucy Maunder emerges as one of the highlights of the night as the widow Catherine. She is one of our very best musical theatre talents, and despite only appearing in the second half of the show, she makes every second on stage utterly captivating.
The ensemble, which features both circus performers and musical theatre specialists, are absolutely essential to Pippin's success. “We have magic to do, just for you,” they tell the audience in the toe-tapping opening number. And as they bring this vibrant, cartwheeling world to life so vividly, magic is exactly what we get.