The cast of PIPPIN

So here’s the thing about Diane Paulus and how she directs musicals:  She takes song-driven, narrative-lite titles like Hair and Pippin and makes them practically irresistible.  She’s very good at creating a sense of on-stage community, in which actors seem to be having a great deal of fun, as themselves as well as the characters, in an almost Brechtian separation that’s obvious but not intrusive.

Watching Pippin from the first row of the left orchestra, we had a clear view of the actors’ faces and their more intimate reactions to one another in a show that’s all but not entirely about spectacle.  We could see how Paulus does a really good job of modulating between the production’s circus setting and its more subtle moments, pacing the action and the show’s rhythms so that the acrobatics never get overwhelming and so that you never lose track of the story.

I’ve seen Pippin several times, and have never really quite “gotten” what it’s about, because the show’s gimmicks often obscure what turns out to be a very simple story about searching for yourself against the dictates of dominating culture.  Pippin (Matthew James Thomas) is the son of King Charlemagne (known as Charlie and played here by the appropriately sardonic Terrence Mann).  The pseudo-historical setting means very little, aside from giving the story its king and queen and its lost, Hamlet-like prince.  Pippin dithers over what he should do with his life, determined to have and be more than the path that seems set out for him.

He’s inspired in his quest by the Mephistophelean (and Machiavellian) “Leading Player” (Tony Award-winner Patina Miller), who entices him away from the ordinary towards inflated schemes of power and influence and difference from the norm.  But in the end, Pippin rejects both his royal lineage and his dream of uniqueness for a more ordinary life, joining Catherine (Rachel Bay Jones), a widow, and her son, Theo (Andrew Cekala), to live as a simple, loving family, disappointing the Leading Player but finally, wistfully, pleasing himself.

Across that simple (heterosexuality-) affirming story, though, the tale Paulus really tells is about the seduction of theatre and performance.  The production is all about charisma, and the entire cast’s power to entice and seduce one another and the audience.  Paulus’s actors demonstrate precise control of each moment and gesture, and thrill to holding the audience in the palms of their collective (Fosse-inspired jazz) hands.

Patina Miller as the Leading Player

When the show starts, the front stage curtain is closed.  As the orchestra begins the familiar, seductive chords of “Magic to Do,” Miller, as the very sexy, vaguely menacing Leading Player, is back lit, her curvy shadow gradually enlarging as she approaches the stage apron from behind the curtain.  When she parts that cloth and appears, singing, “Join us . . .,” the tone is set for the whole show.  (You can see a video clip of this moment and “deconstruction” of how it works on the New York Times web site, here.)  With her jaunty hat and skin-tight black costume, she personifies the seductions of a history of American musical theatre performance.  With sly control and perfectly sleek poise, Miller looks out into the audience, beckoning us closer with her fingers and her words.

I saw Pippin shortly after the Tony Awards were handed out, which seemed to suffuse the whole production with a proud joy (and the audience with a gleeful purchase on cultural capital, since we’d all had the foresight to get our tickets before the Tony’s were announced).  Miller, who won for Best Actress in a Musical, was sublime, using her polished charisma to move Pippin and the rest of the show along, always lurking on the margins of a scene, following through on Paulus’s concept that Pippin be enticed into powerful spectacle and away from the mundane that would entrap him (and us).

For those couple of hours of performance, we’re carried along with Pippin into a world in which you can sample daring feats of physicality and emotion and then change your mind about committing to them; when, for example, you can commit patricide and then think better of it, rewinding time and retrieving the knife you plunged into your kingly father’s chest.

Pippin samples the pleasures of "Flesh"

The audience, like Pippin, is vicariously invited to try different ways of being in the world:  to be the benign ruler who abolishes taxes and empowers the poor, only to quickly realize that, shucks, you can’t please everyone; to be the romantic partner who rescues the lonely widow and her melancholy son, only to feel trapped by domestic banality; to be the warrior in your father’s army, except that you really can’t get with the program of marching, murder, and mayhem; or to be prey to the pleasures of the flesh, passed from one undulating body to the next in a scene reminiscent of the Hair, and then to accept that, gee, you’re not the Casanova that you thought you might be.

Matthew James Thomas, as Pippin, is a wonderful foil for the antic goings-on that Paulus constructs around him.  The character is sometimes a cipher, the least interesting part of the musical, despite bearing its title.  But Thomas performs Pippin as sweet and earnest and hopeful, tempered with just a bit of wry exasperation that keeps him from seeming saccharine.  For much of the production, Thomas plays against conventional masculinity; watching him try to be a soldier is quite amusing, as he very physically demonstrates that blind obedience and armored displays aren’t for him.

Thanks to Thomas’s commitment and his physical and emotional intelligence as an actor, Pippin’s somewhat repetitive arc—“I’ll try this; oops, doesn’t work; I’ll try that!”—seems fresh in every instance.  Thomas performs with a keen awareness that Pippin is a cog in the wheel of the performance and the story, a chance for the virtuosic Paulus to move the other performers around him and for composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz to show off his chops (he wrote the show as an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon; see here for Broadway World‘s terrific compendium of video clips from the history of the show).

But Thomas carries off the part as more than just the straight man.  He’s game but he’s also strong enough—as a singer and an actor—to ground the whole thing in a smart sense of absurdity.  In his hands, Pippin moves from ambivalence to a reluctant but ingenuous understanding that he’s not that special after all.  We see him accept that stepping in as husband to Catherine and father to Theo might not be such a terrible compromise, despite the Leading Player’s fury at what she finds Pippin’s accommodations.

Pippin and Catherine, "Love Song"

If, by the end, the heterosexual family is once again secured (and when isn’t it, I ask you?), at least up until those last moments, the production places its hegemony in doubt.  Even the beautiful, intimate number in which Pippin and Catherine sit on the very edge of the apron to sing “Love Song,” with Thomas appearing to play guitar, is edged with light irony.   Thomas and Jones both seem to play at the iconic moment rather than fully succumbing to it.  I got the impression that the two actors are great friends and that they love performing this duet, more than I felt the characters finally expressing their love.  That moment and many others like it in this production gave Pippin a critical if not fully Brechtian frame that let spectators enjoy the show without necessarily subscribing to what turn out to be its awfully conventional values. 

Terrance Mann as the rather louche Charlie

Terrence Mann as Charlie, the king, and Charlotte d’Amboise as Fastrada, the queen, are also terrifically droll, commenting on their roles even as they fill them so comically.  Mann has the most to do (and better, funnier lines) but d’Amboise makes much of her role as the dunderheaded queenly side-kick who’s in love with her son, Pippin’s brother, Lewis (Colin Cunliffe, understudying for Erik Altemus at the performance I saw).  Lewis is blood-thirsty, muscle-bound, and rather clueless, the perfect counterpart to Pippin’s bleeding-heart-on-his-sleeve liberalism.  Somehow, though, they both seem queer, Pippin because he’s ill-equipped to deal with the demands of war and royalty, and Lewis because he seems a gym rat with more than a little hankering for his fellow fighters.  The performance of various less than conventional masculinities is one of the show’s many pleasures.

Miller and Thomas also make a wonderful gender (and race) contrast.  As the Leading Player, a role originally played by Ben Vereen (and typically played by a man), Miller just gleams.  She masterminds Pippin’s picaresque journey, pushing him hither and yon with a slithering charm.  Miller is everywhere on stage, watching from the wings, hanging from a trapeze in an impossible position way above the action, and dancing among and between the other characters as an omnipresent chimera who for the most part only Pippin can see.  Miller’s opening number, “Magic to Do,” is luscious; how could you not join her on this journey, when she’s dancing and singing and curling her fingers toward you with a presence so enticing you just want to bound onto the stage with her?

Thanks to Paulus’s direction, Chet Walker’s rebooting of Bob Fosse’s original choreography (the program credits Walker with choreography “in the style of Bob Fosse”), and Gypsy Snider’s circus staging, the show boasts an exciting combination of circus and theatre spectacle, in which acrobats and contortionists are mixed in with the singers and dancers.  Most of the musical numbers are embellished with trapeze flying or floor stunts, with the strong and nimble bodies of the men handing one another off or catching one another mid-air with impressive grace and precision.

Male acrobats and their balancing acts

The women circus performers are mostly contortionists, appearing in positions difficult to comprehend that add bits of spectacular color and liveliness to an already busy stage.  The men are more memorable; they fly through rings and slide over inflated balls and hand-walk down staircases and leap backwards off the bridge that crosses the back of the playing space.  Their gravity-defying antics make Pippin’s inability to boost his life into warp speed flight that much more obvious.

Paulus and company keep the show moving so fast you can see the sweat flying from the actors’ brows.  She gives you a lot to look at—I’m sure I missed a number of impressive moments while I was oohing and aahing over others in this literal three-ring circus of a production.  But she also knows when to slow things down and focus your attention.  For instance, Andrea Martin’s Tony Award-winning number “No Time at All” is a masterful turn of vaudevillian shtick and invention, for which the 66-year-old veteran actor performs a trapeze act that sees her literally hanging upside down from the arms of Yannick Thomas, one of the circus pros.

Martin as Berthe and Thomas as Pippin

Martin, as Pippin’s grandmother, Berthe, doles out each morsel of her delicious number with the command of the stage equivalent of Julia Childs.  She’s masterfully in charge of each comic moment, whether cajoling the audience to sing with her on the song’s chorus (the lyrics projected across the scenery with Mitch Miller-esque bouncing  balls marking out the rhythm) or chiding us to shut our mouths while she sings the verse.  Her physical timing is extraordinary as she rips apart the Velcro buttons of her ordinary-looking gown to reveal the tights and unitard of an acrobat below.  When she grasps her flying partner’s wrists and is lifted up to his lap on the trapeze, the number literally stopped the show the night I was there, with a long standing ovation, thanks to Martin’s brilliant charisma and command.  At the performance I saw, Matthew James Thomas as Pippin was in stitches and needed a moment to gather himself as Martin took her bow.

Perhaps because of the recent Tony Awards, the audience was utterly enthralled and enthused all evening.  The ovation for Martin seemed to acknowledge and celebrate her well-deserved award, and the glee with which Miller was greeted every time she was on stage seemed equally generous and knowing.  The whole production was buoyant and glowing with a post-Tony’s gleam.

The big top set

Seeing Pippin reminded me of those moments of utopian performativity about which I’ve written and which I continue looking for in the theatre.  Through the whole show, I smiled ear-to-ear, clapping, singing along, captivated by the circus acts, entranced by the performers, and delighted by my own willingness to be swept away by theatricality.  And I felt my fellow spectators similarly inclined.  The audience seemed communally buoyed by the performance, having that particular kind of fun that being  together, live, and watching virtuosic people who love performing can inspire.

Was there a progressive political quotient in evidence?  I won’t go that far.  But I will say that watching an African American woman perform so impeccably as the evening’s master of ceremonies felt pretty profound.  And so did watching a 66-year-old white woman perform a show-stealing number.  And so did watching d’Amboise and Mann perform a strikingly non-royal kingly and queenly duo.  And so did watching a very game young white male actor perform in a register implicitly critical of conventional white heterosexual masculinity.

Paulus’s revival intervenes just a bit in Pippin’s conventional ending.  After Pippin decides to stay with Catherine and Theo, infuriating the Leading Player with his choice for reality over magic, she manages to seduce young Theo back into the circus ring, suggesting that the cycle of an ambivalent, wondering life journey will begin again in the next generation.  I liked the sense of history repeating itself with which the production leaves us (some critics apparently didn’t).

But given how vivid I found its critique of masculinity, wouldn’t it have been more interesting and poignant if Theo, in Paulus’s production, were played by/as a girl, just as the Leading Player’s gender was shifted?  If a girl-Theo (or perhaps Theodora) were left at the end to fall under the Leading Player’s spell, something more innovative and even progressive might have been implied by this new ending.  New possibilities might have opened on the musical’s gendered landscape.

Maybe another time.

Is Pippin theatre for social change?  No.  Is this production kind of feminist?  Maybe—the women leads are powerful and stellar throughout.  Does it demonstrate how wonderful it feels to be in an audience that’s thrilled to be together, witnessing feats of derring-do and pure theatrical magic?  Absolutely.

The Feminist Spectator

Pippin, Music Box Theatre, Broadway, June 20, 2013.

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