I suppose it should be somehow easier to review this show in light of the 10 Tony Award nominations it received today. The complete truth is that I have been struggling to find the right words to convey the experience I had, now four full days later, at Pippin. I've started this at least five different times, and actually got a pretty decent way into it once before chucking it completely. Now, at draft six and day five quickly approaching, I realize that some experiences defy easy explanation; true, genuine emotion often is the most difficult thing to articulate. Being a part of this production - yes, the audience is a part of this production - has been one of the top six theatre-going experiences of my life. The exact words fail me still - art lovers, imagine trying to articulate the first time you saw the Sistine Chapel - but now, with it so fresh in my memory, I can tell you how the truly exceptional theatre experience feels: when it was over, my entire body was literally quivering from deep inside, and all of my senses were aware to a such a degree that it was as if they had been previously asleep. It was a total body experience to say the least.
The spectre of Bob Fosse is felt throughout this production, from the literal recreation of the iconic "Manson Trio" segment of "Glory," to the more esoteric touches like the truly frightening look of the players as they search out over the crowd, a hungry smile on their lips and a mesmerizing, but ominous blank stare in their eyes. And there is the sexiness that pervades the whole thing, from the overt sexuality of "With You" to the coy double entendre of "No Time At All," and from the vampish sex appeal of Fastrada to the sinister sex appeal of the Leading Player. Yes, Fosse looms large as one might expect. But that in no way diminishes the accomplishments of choreographer Chet Walker, the circus creations of Gypsy Snider and the direction of Diane Paulus. No, if anything, Fosse now provides the canvas on which this new trio creates their singular vision of art. Walker brings the Fosse vocabulary to a dazzling array of production numbers, while Snider provides moment after moment of jaw-dropping stunts and envelope-pushing human drama in each circus routine, and Paulus, in true ringmaster fashion, juggles the choreography and circus acts with the demands of a surprisingly deeper-than-I-ever-remembered book (by Roger O. Hirson) and score that now somehow demands that we all look deeper into it (by Stephen Schwartz). All four elements are so tightly and carefully intertwined that it is often impossible to distinguish when a scene ends, a number begins, or when a dance ends and a circus trick starts. This is the very definition of "collaboration." Just as she has with Hair and Porgy and Bess, Ms. Paulus has reinvigorated and reinvented a classic, this time with the perfect company of colleagues, designers and cast.
As dazzling as all of it is to watch, it is to the credit of all involved that when all is said and done, each element has its moment and then supports the others seamlessly. Scott Pask's enormous circus tent set is dazzling for its sheer size and endless supply of wonders - hidden entrances and exits, a Shakespearean stage box, and hundreds of moving set pieces. These all complement the sleek, sexy and full spectrum of color costumes - there have to be hundreds - designed with a circus-y flair, an eye toward history and a no holds barred theatricality by Dominique Lemieux. The sets and costumes provide a surface for Kenneth Posner's complex and beguiling lighting plan, which helps to guide our eyes, set the mood and to illuminate (and darken) the dream-like quality of so many scenes. Just as with the directorial elements, the designers have created a stunning world where life, the circus and the theatre intertwine and overlap.
I am sure over the long run of this production there will be many a cast change, and I'm sure any replacements will have their merits. But it is hard to imagine this show with even one original cast member missing, including any of the multi-talented ensemble members, here called The Players: Gregory Arsenal and Philip Rosenberg (featured as a hand balancers), Yannick Thomas (trapeze specialist and bolero dancer) and Lolita Costet (Bolero dancer), Colin Cunliffe (the Head), Orion Griffiths (Rolla Bolla speciality), Andrew Fitch and Anthony Wayne (The "Manson Trio"), and dancer/acrobats/contortionists Viktoria Grimmy, Olga Karmansky, Bethany Moore, Stephanie Pope and Molly Tynes. Each of these performers are exceptionally gifted and bring as much to the show as any of the featured players.
At the performance I attended, the role of young Theo was played with pluck and a generous helping of preteen angst by Andrew Cekala, who does an especially nice job balancing that angst with mirroring male role model Pippin, and without ever being an annoying "child actor." The delightfully angelic and devilish turn by the hilarious Rachel Bay Jones gives the role of Catherine a much needed and welcomed depth missing from every one of the many productions of this show I've seen. Her solo, in near darkness center stage, "I Guess I'll Miss the Man" resonates here as never before - a quiet moment that registers just as much as any of the flashy production numbers. The impossibly handsome, light on his feet, and stupidly self-absorbed Lewis is played by the equally impossibly handsome Erik Altemus, who manages to bring this small, but pivotal, role to the foreground, as the anti-Pippin - a one man cautionary tale.
The bewigged and so-sexy-it-makes-you-ache Charlotte d'Amboise channels everyone from Gwen Verdon to Donna McKechnie in her beautifully danced "Spread A Little Sunshine," and is both a funny and menacing presence as the scheming step-Queen, Fastrada. Like Ms. Jones, Ms. d'Amboise brings a surprising depth to what is generally a one or two note character. Part of the fun, too, is watching her work with the great Terrence Mann, her real-life husband. The vastly underrated Mann, may have finally hit Tony gold with his astonishing turn as Charles, part growling tiger, part purring pussy cat. He stalks the stage with a hunger in his eyes, a stalwart bravado, and sneaky warmth that brings out a poignant part of his characterization. And bravo to him for getting through that crazy tongue-twister of a number, "War is a Science."
Everything you've heard about Andrea Martin's performance is true. She steals the show with every scene she's in, and her big scene and number, "No Time At All," is a true show-stopper, complete with a standing ovation and applause that does not stop until she takes a mid-show bow. And yes, she does an amazing circus act - without a net. But it is NOT remarkable because she's 66 years old. It is remarkable because it is really THAT good. Martin, though, is not a show-stopper because she's famous or larger than life. It is because her performance is a veritable study in timing, delivery and austerity. The woman says more with one pause or one bat of her huge eyelashes than many actors do with an entire soliloquy. Every breath, pause and syllable, not to mention look, movement and twist is grounded in nothing else but character and story telling. That is how a real pro does it.
Given the amount of press and social media chatter about the casting of Patina Miller as The Leading Player has gotten, you'd think we lived in the sexist is cool age of the 1950's or something. But it makes total sense. It is the women in Pippin's life that guide him and help him find fulfillment, not the men. And Miller is sheer perfection here, giving a career-defining performance. Does she erase the memory of Ben Vereen? No. But she isn't trying to, either. Her Player is an original creation, at times sly, sexy and even nurturing, even as (often simultaneously) she is dark, evil and manipulative. She draws you in with that huge, toothy smile, and cunningly insinuates you into joining her with a potent and heady mix of sexuality and danger. Ms. Miller is a powerful presence in every way - comedic, dramatic, musically, and as dancer and actress. From the opening lines of "Magic to Do," to her delightful "Simple Joys," to the athletic "On the Right Track," she holds your attention in ways unseen on Broadway since Chita Rivera in Kiss of the Spider Woman.
Finally, in the title role is young Matthew James Thomas, who has now gone from second-string Spider-Man to true Broadway leading man. One can only imagine how exhausted he must be after each performance. He rarely leaves the stage, and when he's on it, he must be a quadruple threat all at once - singer, dancer, actor, circus performer. (You should see how he works a stationary pole.) And at all times, he must connect with the audience in an increasingly complex way. His "Corner of the Sky" fits his take on Pippin perfectly, and he is an excellent foil to Miller, Mann, Martin and Bay. The show rests on Pippin's ability to take the audience on the ride with him to "the ultimate finale." Matthew James Thomas does just that in a humble, yet bravado-filled performance, full of innocence, life lessons learned and a sex appeal that takes you in, but never leaves you feeling dirty.
This show is one of the few geared directly toward boys and men. A coming of age tale, Pippin has proven to be universal, but it hits this male theatre-goer in ways that Cinderella and other girl-centric tales don't. A boy becomes a true man when he realizes that it is how he lives his life and treats others that makes him one, not his physical strength, bravery and prowess in the bedroom. As Pippin, and we, find out over the course of the show, it is the quest for the extraordinary that teaches us the most, but it is in the ordinary where we can make the most impact. Perhaps it is my age and life experience that have made me appreciate this Pippin more than others. Certainly, songs like "Morning Glow," which left me spent and in tears (I wasn't the only one, either), have deepened for me with age. But now I really get the entire ending. Paulus has made a change to the final moments of the show that even now gives me chills just thinking about it. It speaks to me as never before.
Over the years of doing this blog, I have often struggled with how to convey those times when a show has been an exhilarating high (Matilda and Hands on a Hardbody this season) and when a show's touch is so profound that it represents a milestone in one's artistic life. For me, that has happened with the original productions of A Chorus Line, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Sweeney Todd, the 1983 revival of Mame (my first Broadway show), next to normal, and now, with this revival of Pippin. Perhaps, my time with the show may best be summed up by a writer (whose name and work escapes me now) who, when discussing this particular work, said something to the effect of this: you know when you are seeing a good production of Pippin when it stimulates your brain, your heart and your crotch. In short, a superior production of Pippin makes you feel completely alive and part of the human experience. And this is superior.
(Photos by Joan Marcus)