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 and family.
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, connecting 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 diction!
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.)
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 Barneshas turned out amusingly eclectic costumes. Fashion designer Gene Meyerprovides cutting edge club kid costumes for the opening, and Kirk Bookmanlights 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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