When I was growing up, I always made a point of going to the high school theater productions. The reason for this was twofold: living in a small town, you were always bound to know someone involved in the show and our theater program was actually quite good. While I generally really enjoyed the programs that they put on, occasionally the former greatly outweighed that latter – one production of The Crucible, in particular, almost turned me off of theater altogether. I didn’t really dig The Fantasticks either, but overall their win percentage was pretty high. These productions helped solidify my love of going to see plays, particularly musicals.
It was during these years that I also fell in love with the musical Pippin. It’s kind of an odd choice because Pippin in kind of an odd play, but I think what initially made it appeal to me was it was completely new to me. Almost all the other musicals that they did were pretty famous and had movie versions: Oklahoma, Grease, The Music Man, Annie, Little Shop of Horrors, etc. So I was already knew the songs and basic plots for most of the musicals before I ever set foot in the theater. That doesn’t mean that they weren’t good or enjoyable, but I think that made them less likely to make a lasting impression. With Pippin I had no idea what to expect and it had a differently sensibility from a lot of the musicals that I was used to. I saw it multiple times and even went out and got the original Broadway soundtrack (on cassette!) that I listened to over and over again. While everyone else was obsessing over Les Miserables, I was listening to “Corner of the Sky,” “Simple Joys,” and “On the Right Track” ad nauseam.
So when I heard that Broadway was doing a revival of the musical, I was all over it. It did give me pause, however, that I had friends that went to see it and who really didn’t like it. It had been a while since I’d listened to the songs – I never replaced the soundtrack on cd or mp3 – and I worried that I was misremembering how good it was. I hesitated long enough that I never got to see the show before it closed on Broadway, but thankfully a traveling production was making a local stop and I would be able to see if I loved the revival as much as I did back when I was a teenager. The fact that the 2013 version of the Broadway show added in Cirque du Soleil elements was also intriguing; our high school production was good, but I assure you it didn’t incorporate any acrobatics or stunts. I could see how that could totally work with the show, but it would depend on the execution. I scored a deal so I got $25 tickets for the front row and I was ready to see if Pippin was one of those things that just doesn’t hold up to the youthful enthusiasm that you remembered.
Pippin is very loosely based on an actual person – the son of King Charlemagne in the Middle Ages. And by very loosely I mean that there was an actual person named Pippin and that’s about it. This is not a show that you go to for historical accuracy. If you are looking for that, go see Wolf Hall. Now that he’s finished school, Pippin is having extraordinary something of an existential crisis; he believes that he is extraordinary and should leave an extraordinary life, but nothing that he tries leaves him fulfilled. The musical follows him through these pursuits as Pippin is guided by a mysterious Leading Player and her troupe of performers who keep alluding to “the big finale” that they have planned for him.
The good news is that I still loved Pippin as much as I did back in the day; I was somewhat surprised that while I had forgotten a few plot points along the way, I still knew the words to just about every song. It’s probably a good thing that the audience was encouraged to participate at one point because I was practically biting the inside of my cheek to stop myself from singing the songs. That would have been rude regardless, but I sincerely lack any musical talent and ain’t nobody got time for that.
I initially found the addition of the acrobatics a little distracting; part of that was simply because I was sitting so close to the stage and it was hard to take it all in. The revival of Pippin is a much more visually disorienting production than what I was used to – there are people climbing up ribbons and twirling, tumblers whizzing across the stage the actors and actresses being tossed around with somewhat wonton abandon. I was so busy trying to see everything that I found that I wasn’t paying enough attention to the actual performances. I was worried that this was going to be a musical that focused on style over substance, but either I adapted to all the mayhem that was going on or it just started to make sense. By halfway through the first act, I was more fully on board with what was going on and in the end it really did enhance the story. I’m glad that I knew the basics of the story beforehand however; I could see if you didn’t know anything about Pippin how you could be a little lost with all that’s going on. Even a more bare-bones production of Pippin doesn’t follow a lot of the narrative beats that you would expect; elements of magic and suspending realism are in the show’s DNA. So really, adding in the Cirque du Soleil-like performances is really just taking Pippin to its logical next level. And man – those performers were amazing. There’s got to be a very small group of people who can sing, dance and balance themselves on their hands or hang upside down high in the air. It was all spectacularly thrilling to watch and even if you didn’t dig anything else that was going on, you’d be hard pressed not to be impressed by all the acrobatics and tricks that you witnessed. I’ve never actually gone to Cirque du Soleil, but I’d be more open to it after what I saw in Pippin. Not the same caliber, obviously, but for someone who never thought tumbling or acrobatics would be that fun to watch it certainly piqued my interest.
Pippin was also a funnier show than I remembered; there were plenty of moments of laughter throughout the musical. Charlemagne (John Rubinstein, who originated the role of Pippin on Broadway in the original production) was almost entirely comic relief, as was his wife Fastrada. The real show stopper however was Berthe (Adrienne Barbeau). Her performance of “No Time at All” was the highlight of the first act. Barbeau was clearly having a ball up there and at almost 70 wasn’t afraid to do some acrobatics as well. She really only has the one song, but she makes the absolute most of it and she received one of the biggest ovations of the evening.
It’s kind of easy to dismiss Pippin as an odd little show – I’d forgotten just how weird the ending is – that is something of a trifle, but there are some dark and disturbing issues bubbling up just under the surface of the play. This was more evident during this viewing of the play – not only do some of the themes resonate a little more with me now that I’m older, but there’s only so much that you can get away with in a high school production. There are a few racier scenes in Pippin that definitely were toned down a bit the first time that I saw it (thanks School Board). Part of the magic of Pippin is dealing with issues of identity and fulfillment in such a light and airy way.
Some other thoughts:
- Though I know that the role of Leading Player has been played by people of both genders, I am much more accustomed to a man in the part (Ben Vereen was on the soundtrack that I had). So it took a little adjustment on my part to hear those songs in a woman’s voice. It totally worked, of course, and added a different dynamic to the interactions with Pippen. And really, it would have been an adjustment for me to hear anyone other than Vereen singing.
- There was one point in the play where I legitimately was concerned for the actor who was doing one of the stunts. I know that they are trainer professionals and he’s probably done that trick a hundred times, but I really didn’t want to be up close and personal if that dude fell and broke his neck. Thankfully, he pulled it off without incident and we all let out a big sigh of relief.
- Because I am me, I almost lost my shoe in the orchestra pit during the second act. Don’t ask.
- I also had a mini-anxiety attack when I couldn’t find my car in the parking garage. Yesterday really wasn’t my day on many levels.
- The one part of the show that didn’t necessary work for me was a prolonged soft shoe dance number by the Leading Player. She was good, but I just think in the context of a shoe where there is a lot of visual stimulation, it felt boring by comparison. Even half as long would have worked for me.
- I have a weird thing where I don’t like to make eye contact with anyone while they are singing, so front row really wasn’t the best place for me to be.
- At one point, one of the members of the performance troupe plays a chicken/rooster and damn near steals the entire show. That dude definitely decided to seize his moment.
- He’s on stage for just a moment, but there is a super cute dog that is part of the show.
All in all, I am so glad that I decided to go see Pippin and it totally lived up to my memories of the show. The performances of the leads were all great and the members of the troupe deserve nothing but praise for all the aerial stunts and gymnastics that they consistently pulled off flawlessly. Pippin isn’t a musical that everyone will like – there’s no denying that it’s a little offbeat – but as someone who holds it in a special place in her heart, I was totally impressed with it. It was a fun and entertaining night at the theater and it inspired me to seek out the original Broadway soundtrack on a more modern format (though I’m guessing that cassette is still in my childhood bedroom). Well done by everyone involved; they lived up to the promise that “We’ve got magic to do…….. Just for you”
Pippin is currently on a U.S tour.