REVIEW: Pippin, Music Box Theatre ✭✭✭✭✭

The cast of Pippin at the Music Box Theatre
The cast of Pippin. Photo: Joan Marcus

Music Box Theatre
January 16 2014
5 Stars

I have never had any time for Pippin, the 1972 Musical from Roger O Hirson and Stephen Schwartz which was originally directed on Broadway by the legendary Bob Fosse. Every production, every recording, has seemed vapid and tiresome and the two tunes of the piece are over and done with in the first ten minutes.

Now playing at the Music Box on Broadway is the Tony Award winning revival of Pippin helmed by Diane Paulus. It is, in every possible way, an unrestrained triumph, almost perfectly cast, sumptuously staged and chock full of invention, drive and sheer dazzling skill.

Paulus’ vision here is extraordinary: she takes the opening song’s promise of “magic to do” seriously, and provides magical moments by the bucketful. Using a circus troop as her device, Paulus weaves a clever, visceral and quite thrilling (and funny) version of the tale of the young prince who wants to find fulfilment. The acrobatic and clowning work is nothing short of heart-stoppingly good; the physical work of the ensemble is terrific, their perfect athletic bodies seamlessly providing a rich and constantly engaging background to the plight of Pippin.

The circus work is not just a backdrop here – it is an integral part of the concept, and the tricks, the entwined bodies, the endurance feats, the suppleness of bodies working in unison has as much to say about the narrative and moving it forward as any song, any scene.

Patina Miller is sensational in every aspect of what she does; her singing is precise and warm, her dancing electric and aglow with sexual energy and her masterful command of the narrative faultless and sublime. She is faultless.

Tovah Feldshuh is equally faultless as Pippin’s Grandmother Berthe and her showstopping delivery of No Time At All, complete with trapeze work, is the undeniable highlight of the evening.

Terrence Mann is in terrific form as the wily King Charles and he lands every laugh line while demonstrating an impressive knife throwing prowess and providing one of the truly dramatic highlights: his slaughter by Pippin is unexpected and savagely real.

Charlotte d’Amboise is just wonderful as the scheming Queen Fastrada and her star turn in Spread A Little Sunshine, this turn based on sensational dancing, a close second to Feldshuh’s star turn.

In the second Act, Rachel Bay Jones provides a breathlessly funny and achingly touching Catherine, the woman Pippin eventually comes to understand and love. Jones, like Miller, puts no foot wrong. Charming and knowing in equal measure, she hits another bullseye.

The women in this cast are simply phenomenal.

Erik Altemus is very funny as the vain, would-be usurper, Lewis, and Ashton Woerz pitch perfect as Theo, the boy with the duck who dies.

As Pippin, Matthew James Thomas looked and played the role extremely well, but vocally he seemed under par – possibly suffering from a cold, possibly not. Corner of the Sky was not as thrilling as it ought to be; this was not Matthew Robinson singing. But Thomas more than got by and quite a lot of his performance is more than excellent – his work in the Glory, Flesh and Ordinary Life sections of the piece is perfectly judged and sizzles with precision and careful, assured playing.

The ensemble are all thrillingly, marvellously skilled – they leap, tumble, sway, dance, jive, swish, fly, twirl, turn, climb, juggle and play with fire, all in various stages of undress; they provide the backbone to Paulus’ inventive reimagining of Pippin and each of them is outstanding. And beautiful.

Chet Walker’s choreography, which owes much to Fosse, is simply breath-taking and it comes sprightly to life amidst Scott Pask’s wonderful circus tent set and Dominique Lemieux’ costumes – all of which are lit beautifully and delicately by Kenneth Posner. Larry Hochman’s orchestrations are a triumph, completely invigorating the score, giving it a freshness that seemed impossible.

Really, there is nothing not to love here: this is that rare thing: a completely wonderful revival of a Broadway show that boasts the combination of near perfect casting and inspired, innovative direction and concept. It would be surprising to think that the original production could have been as truly wonderful as this revival. Certainly, this is likely to be the definitive production of Pippin in our lifetimes.

Utterly completely glorious – funny and intensely sexual in style. This is a Pippin for all seasons. Miss it not!

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