After more than four decades, “Pippin” will return to Broadway with previews beginning on March 23 at the Music Box Theatre and an April opening to follow. It’s been well worth the wait. I saw the show in its pre-Broadway engagement at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theatre (it remains there through January 20), and it has all the markings of a bright, sexy hit. Possibly, a big one. This musical, after all, was, the Broadway debut of Stephen Schwartz who has since shown that he is in the top tier when it comes to writing show music. Exhibit A: “Wicked.”
Directed by Diane Paulus, the artistic director of A.R.T., the revival cleverly combines circus arts with the strong classic musical theater elements which made this a smash hit in 1972. Paulus has been smart to re-create, with the help of Chet Walker, the original choreography of the late Bob Fosse, who directed and co-wrote (with Roger O. Hirson), the libretto. Paulus has also brought in Gypsy Snider, an ex-Cirque du Soleil member and a founder of the 7 Digits company (“Traces”), to spearhead the acrobatics.
The athleticism is justified by the concept of a traveling troupe of players — actors, jugglers, acrobats, and clowns — pitching their tent to tell the rather thin story of Pippin, struggling to find his “corner of the sky” in the shadow of his great and ruthless father Charlemagne and against the machinations of his malevolent stepmother and scheming stepbrother. The picaresque and episodic nature of the show — as Pippin careens through war, revolution, palace intrigue and romance — holds some perils in building up any emotional momentum. And there is also the danger of the circus arts throwing the audience out of the narrative. But Paulus wisely winds down the pyrotechnics in the second act to concentrate on Pippin’s existential quest to find meaning and commitment in his life.
There is nothing musty about this revival. And much to admire. The role of the Leading Player, who is the ringleader of the circus, is played by Patina Miller (Tony nominee for “Sister Act”) and she deftly and wittily works her way through a show that breaks “the fourth wall,” hectoring the actors and inviting the audience to participate in the goings-on. Brit actor Matthew James Thomas (“Spider-Man”), in the title role, leads an impressive ensemble, which includes Charlotte D’Amboise, Terrence Mann, and Tony Award-winner Andrea Martin in the role of Pippin’s feisty grandmother. The choice of the intimate Music Box Theatre is another intelligent move in a show which could prove to be a highlight of the Broadway Spring season. The Boston Globe headlined its review: “Diane Paulus Directs Magical ‘Pippin’ at ART.” The other local reviewers followed suit. Since the high-flying opening number is “Magic to Do,” the consensus so far appears to land this revival in the category of promises kept.
Image: Courtesy American Repertory Theater