Music Box Theatre
239 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through December 22, $59 - $148
Inventive director Diane Paulus, who has staged wildly successful revivals of Hair and Porgy and Bess in recent years, now lovingly resurrects Roger O. Hirson’s and Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin on the occasion of its fortieth anniversary. “We’ve got magic to do, just for you,” the cast announces in the dazzling opening number, and the first act of this self-described “anecdotic revue” is indeed magical. The show, which was directed by Bob Fosse back in 1973, is hosted by the Leading Player (usually played by Patina Miller but performed by Stephanie Pope when we saw it) à la the Emcee in Fosse’s Cabaret, both addressing the audience directly and running things onstage. It’s the early Middle Ages, and King Charlemagne (a beautifully bearded Terence Mann) is sitting on the throne, denying peasants’ wishes and leading his empire through a series of wars. Meanwhile, his prodigal son, Pippin (Matthew James Thomas), has returned from his studies, trying to figure out what to do with his life. “Why do I feel I don’t fit in anywhere I go?” he asks in the ballad “Corner of the Sky,” continuing, “Rivers belong where they can ramble / Eagles belong where they can fly / I’ve got to be where my spirit can run free / Got to find my corner of the sky.” He considers becoming a warrior like his half brother, Lewis (Erik Altemus), which delights his stepmother, Fastrada (Charlotte d’Amboise), who envisions Pippin getting killed, making Lewis next in line to be king. But that doesn’t quite work out, and soon Pippin finds himself in the midst of a difficult moral quandary as he considers the sins of the father and the needs of the common people.
The first act is spectacular as the fictionalized story plays out within a circus setting featuring thrilling acrobatics by members of the Montreal-based troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main, who juggle fire, slide across rolling balls, impossibly balance on objects and one another, and literally jump through hoops as they display life’s unlimited potential. Andrea Martin (SCTV, Young Frankenstein) amazes in a showstopping acrobatic number of her own as Pippin’s grandma Berthe, agelessly performing “No Time at All.” The second act bogs down significantly as Pippin spends time on a farm with the motherly Catherine (Rachel Bay Jones) and her young son, Theo (alternately played by Andrew Cekala and Ashton Woerz), considering a more ordinary life, but he still knows there’s something special out there for him. “Every so often a man has a day he truly can call his,” he sings. “Well, here I am to seize my day / if someone would just tell me when the hell it is.” Understudy Pope is luscious, leggy, and lascivious as the Leading Player, a star-making role originated on Broadway by Ben Vereen, who won a Tony for it, and currently played by Tony nominee Miller. Chet Walker’s choreography has Bob Fosse written all over it, and indeed it’s credited to Walker (Fosse) “in the style of Bob Fosse.” Paulus has managed to transform Pippin, an obvious product of its era, coming in the early 1970s following a tumultuous decade that included the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and free love, into a more timeless tale of generational change as the son both embraces and rebels against the father, trying to find his place in the world.