Pitching the Perfect Tent – Review of ‘Pippin’

Is there anything more terrifying than the possibility of future regret? The battle of an artist to be extraordinary while maintaining some semblance of a functioning family life has always proven fertile ground for all art forms, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the current revival of ‘Pippin’.

The ambitious coming-of-age journey of a young prince goes deeper than its superficial circus-like atmosphere would have you believe, and therein lies its genius. Director Diane Paulus brings new life and magic to the Stephen Schwartz musical, touching on issues as deep as sibling rivalry, parental control, patricide, and hints of Oedipal conflict while dazzling with circus stunts. Choreographer Chet Walker retains Bob Fosse’s signature style, jazz hands and pelvic grinds intact, to aid in the seduction, and that sort of wink is necessary to draw the audience in, and give this revival the subtext that lends it greater depth. Yet it is the amazing aerials, stunning acrobatics, and visual pyrotechnics that make the story soar.

Each of the cast gets a shot in the spotlight, which affords some amazing moments. The only problem is that the evening sometimes runs the risk of feeling like a variety show, never less than entertaining, but occasionally not much more. Luckily, the performances and the actors investing in them ground it all, and keep the story together. It is, in fact, the strength of this company – where each member is an individual, unique and distinguishable at all times – that is the real winning hand of the evening. Broadway vets like Terrence Mann and Andrea Martin (the former voraciously eating up his scenes and the latter flying high above the stage with no wires or safety net) stand out while gleefully enjoining the ensemble.

Patina Miller, as the magnificent ringleader, is at turns enticing and erotic, menacing and ferocious, seductive and sensual, biting and brutal. She is the master of ceremonies, perfectly embodying the multi-faceted tension of finding oneself, while leading Pippin, and the audience, along the road of temptation. She deservedly won the Tony for her work here, culminating in a devastating last act of defiant desperation.

As Pippin, Matthew James Thomas brings a wide-eyed naiveté to his early scenes, gently adding shades of knowledge and wisdom as he progresses on his journey, flummoxed and confounded at one point, dazed but valiantly rebounding the next. He ultimately resigns himself to a real life, rejecting all the magic, and perhaps a bit of the search for being something exceptional. The story ends not there, but with the next generation, searching and seeking out the same giddy thrills, the same heights of fantasy, the same quest for something extraordinary.

The neat thing is that after witnessing such fantastic (and literal) flights of fancy, the thrilling visuals, and an evening of entertaining enchantment, the moment when the ringleader strikes the set and withdraws the magic is a compelling challenge to both Pippin and the audience. One wants to believe that the unamplified voices and costume-free starkness can match and hold up to all the colorful theatricality that came before, but the question lingers, and haunts, and it is here where the power of this revival is finally revealed. Is it worth the trade off? Or should we never give up, never settle? It is left in vague ambivalence, tottering on a high wire of hope, as astounding and challenging as the entire evening of theater has been.

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