Led by director Diane Paulus, American Repertory Theater’s revival of Pippin at the Music Box Theatre admirably takes on a musical theater classic, while also managing to bring fresh perspective to it. Pippin is narrated by a troupe of players, led by the Leading Player, who welcomes the audience into the story in the opening number, “Magic to Do,” promising a show full of tricks and spectacle. Pippin is a young prince (played by Matthew James Thomas) searching for deeper meaning in his life and refusing to settle for something “ordinary.” Throughout the show, he tries everything he can think of to achieve fulfillment: war, politics, sex. But nothing brings him any closer to what he seeks until he spends a year helping out on a small farm with a widow named Catherine and her son, Theo. He begins to realize that this simple, “ordinary” life with people he loves can give him all the fulfillment he needs, and rebels against the seductive ideas of fame and “glory” that the players present.
Stephen Schwartz’s wonderful music and lyrics remain intact, and Chet Walker’s choreography stays very true to the style of Bob Fosse, whose distinct movement vocabulary and staging was one of the largest reasons for the first Pippin’s success in 1972 (in fact, this production keeps Fosse’s original choreography for the Manson Trio in the song “Glory,” though the gender roles are reversed). Isolations of every body part, jazz hands, pigeon-toed walks, and other classic elements of Fosse’s style characterize many of the numbers, while the circus acrobatics, staged by Gypsy Snider (of Les 7 doigts de la main) add a new aspect to the show. The players rise up on trapezes, jump through hoops, and perform magic tricks onstage. The dance and acrobatics are a major part of the way the story is told, illustrating Pippin’s struggles to find what’s right for him. In “War Is a Science,” one of the more humorous numbers, Pippin’s father, the king (played by Terrence Mann), leads his army (danced by some of the players) while Pippin tries to keep up. The players march in perfect unison, sometimes isolating only their heads. Pippin’s movement clearly sets him apart, as he awkwardly wags his head back and forth, visually representing that the idea of war is not what he seeks.
In many ways, this show belongs to Patina Miller, who shines as the Leading Player. Like a ringmaster, her character literally runs and carries the show, selling it to us, but from the beginning, there is something unsettling about her (all of the players seem slightly reminiscent of the circus clowns children are afraid of). The movement has a lot to do with it: there is a darkness lingering behind the “razzle dazzle,” and the subtle contrasts within her dancing (even in her walk) reveal more about her character than anything else. In one moment, she moves only her fingers, and your eye is drawn to this movement no matter where you are sitting (I was in the back row). These contrasts and details are at the heart of Pippin’s message, looking at what it means to be theatrical, and considering it from a different angle.Pippin was always a somewhat “different” musical, with its darker undertones and its strong self-awareness. The Leading Player makes it clear that they are putting on a show, often speaking directly to the audience and promising wondrous events. She is part of the story – acting as a strange sort of conscience or mentor-figure to Pippin – while also being removed from it. She introduces us to the characters, and is not afraid to tell them when they are going “off-book,” as when Catherine (played by Rachel Bay Jones) sings her solo, “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man,” and the Leading Player yells that there is not supposed to be a song there (indeed, the song is not listed in the program). Catherine is also told to repeat her “grand” theatrical entrance when we first meet her, after she clumsily gets tangled up in the curtains.
The addition of the circus elements further draws attention to the idea of “putting on a show.” In the standout number “No Time At All” (one of the most fun parts of the show), Pippin’s grandmother, Berthe (played excellently by Andrea Martin), sings about living in the moment, and asks the entire audience to join her. The players perform tricks on a series of giant exercise balls, and the number includes an interlude in which Martin sheds her outer clothing for a sparkly outfit and is suspended on a trapeze. The circus theme also helps to illustrate the danger underneath the thought of playing a role in one’s life, rather than simply living it. In another notable number, “Spread a Little Sunshine,” Pippin’s stepmother, Fastrada (played by Charlotte d’Amboise), sings hypocritically about the benefits of helping others, while she deceives and betrays those around her. The jazzy number combines Fosse’s dance style with the circus element, as d’Amboise changes her costume three times in rapid flashes onstage, so quickly that it is a magic trick, leaving us wondering how she does it. In the same way that she changes costumes in the blink of an eye, Fastrada can change her personality based on who she is speaking to and what she wants from them, putting on different theatrical masks. In Pippin, the words being sung do not always match the actions accompanying them. In another number, “With You,” Pippin sings a love song while exploring a series of purely physical sexual encounters.
In the end, the message is not as simple as you might think. When the players walk off at the end of the show, stripping the stage and stopping the music, one can’t help but feel just a twinge of regret or loss, seeing Pippin and Catherine on a quiet, dark plane – even though you know that he made the right decision. The players were fun, after all. And in the show’s last moments, maybe in spite of yourself, you feel just a little bit of relief mixed with an eerie feeling when the players begin to creep back out of the shadows, and the soft music begins again. Maybe there is a little bit of Pippin in all of us, searching for something more, searching for a deeper purpose and meaning. This show forces us to confront these feelings, and to delve into them. Interestingly enough, one of the few numbers that include no theatrical flourishes or magic tricks is Pippin’s first song, “Corner of the Sky,” the song that sets up his dream and his quest for a happy, fulfilling life (delivered beautifully by Thomas). He sings this song on a fairly bare stage, lit by a spotlight and standing in generally the same place the whole time. It is a song that resurfaces throughout the entire show, and expresses the feelings many of us probably have inside (or have had, at some point). Maybe, Pippin had the meaning within himself all along, without the glitz and the glamour. Though it does help to have an orchestra.