Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn, NJ - June 2000
Review by John Kenrick
Noseworthy as Pippin.
It has never exactly been a secret that
composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz and librettist Roger O. Hirson were less than
thrilled with some of the things that director Bob Fosse did to give
Pippin his hallmark blend of cynicism and sex. While the show got great
reviews and ran for several years, it was far from what the authors had
originally envisioned. When Paper Mill Playhouse announced that it was staging
Pippin with new revision by Schwartz and Hirson, I was intrigued. What
would they do to make this 1972 hit feel new again?
The basic plot remains. Prince Pippin, son of the mighty Charlemagne, has
finished college and wants to find fulfillment in an extraordinary life. With
the help of a troupe of players, he tries everything from war to drugs to
orgiastic sex, and the players urge him to be different by trying a fiery
suicide. In the end, he rejects the players and chooses the simple joys of home
The troupe of theatrical players has been transformed into a group of night
club kids, the “players” of today. The set is a medieval church-turned-disco
(much like the infamous Limelight in Manhattan). Its not a bad premise,
Pippin’s story with those who try to find fulfillment and
self-expression in the nocturnal world of techo music and hard drugs. Some
survive – some burn out. In the final scene, as Pippin and his beloved begin
to walk off, a teenage boy begins to sing of his desire to find fulfillment –
and the club players return, reprising their seductive call to “join us.”
Its takes a daring man to re-think a Fosse classic, and director Robert
Johanson deserves tremendous credit for coming up with this fresh take.
However, he is not able to make all of Pippin’s diverse elements fit easily
into this new concept. The Lead Player looks for all the world like
Rent’s blond & buffed Roger slipped into tight, snakeskin patterned
clothes. Jim Newman works his butt off in the role, but his riffy
vocalizations sometimes make the lyrics unintelligible – which can be fatal
for a narrator. Broadway veteran Ed Dixon is a super Charlegmagne, but
the new do-wop version of “War is a Science” makes it impossible to hear
what he is singing and believe me, he has NO problems with volume or
Jack Noseworthy (featured in the film U-571) is a fine choice
for the title role, singing well and dancing superbly. His good looks and
sculpted physique make Pippin’s multi-sexual exploits a pleasure to watch, and
he brings sensitivity to the role’s more tender moments though at times,
I felt the direction did him (and his character) a disservice.
Natascia A. Diaz is delicious as Catherine, the widow who captures Pippin’s
heart. A genuine beauty with incredible stage presence – watch for this lady
in the future! (The program says she is set to appear in Broadway’s
Seussical this fall.)
Rae singing her showstopper, "No Time at All"
Sara Gettelfinger is lithe and deliciously hateful as Fastrada, and
Davis Kirby plays the macho airhead Lewis with flair. Charlotte Rae,
best remembered as Mrs. Garrett TV’s
The Facts of Life does a fine show-stealing job as Berthe, Pippin’s
irrepressible grandmother. Entering in a wheelchair, this real-life granny soon
belies her age with a rendition of "No Time At All" that has her kicking up
her heels and the house roaring – easily the highlight of the evening.
Rob Ashford’s choreography is polished and diverting, bringing in
many contemporary dance styles. The orgy sequence is less audacious, but
definitely gets the point across & turns up the heat. However, those who saw
Fosse’s original choreography will sorely miss it. Some of Schwartz’s score
suffers from the attempts to update the musical sound, especially in the first act.
Aside form the aforementioned "War is a Science," the revised versions of
"Magic to Do" and "Glory" are less theatrically effective. However, by the time things turn
introspective in Act Two, David Siegel’s new orchestrations bring out
the warmth in “Love Song” and “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man” aided
greatly my Ms. Diaz's heartfelt singing.
Michael Anania remains Paper Mill's secret weapon, with sets that
royally serve the material and the director's innovations, and Gregg Barnes
has turned out amusingly eclectic costumes. Fashion designer Gene Meyer
provides cutting edge club kid costumes for the opening, and Kirk Bookman
lights everything deftly. (Fellow Annie fans: William Berloni provided
some delightful trained animals, including a scene stealing duck!)
Whatever its weaknesses, this production is not afraid to take important
creative risks – the sort of thing theatre companies must do if we are to keep
the musical theatre alive and vital. This is the first professional New York
area mounting of Pippin since the original its good to see it
back, as randy and challenging as ever.
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