PIPPIN - The Extinguishing of "One Perfect Flame"
With the once-deemed "impossible to revive" production of Pippin completing a successful run and in it's final weeks on Broadway, I wanted to devote an article to this musical (one of my favorites) and to this production (which I count as the finest and most inventive I have ever seen on Broadway). I cannot help but feel that this production, successful as it is, should have run longer. For me it is the reigning example of how dance, music, inventive staging, a finely tuned concept, and sheer theatrical energy can come together to produce a heightened magic that makes theatre addictive and life-changing.
One of the things that I have always appreciated about Pippin is the slight of hand that the book and score utilize in order to mess with our heads. The song "Corner of the Sky," an anthem of the journey of self-realization, is, at first, all about potential and possibility. If we examine it more closely and think hard about the context, we should realize that Pippin is setting himself up for failure with this "I Am" song. Skies do not have corners, and Pippin is immediately setting on a journey without a possible destination. Skies are boundless, ever-changing, and influenced by the illusions of the moon, the sun, the stars, and the clouds. It is only within the earthbound constructs that we find corners, niches, places to claim, and the people to put us on our pedestals. Is it any wonder that Pippin's final destination must be in the simple home of Katherine? His journey is about ruling out the illusionistic trappings and the abstract glory of the sky and embracing the tangible, substantive joys of the simple things bound to earth. "Corner of the Sky" reels us in to think as Pippin does and tantalizes us with the promises of "the power and the glory," making us feel duped for allowing ourselves to be caught up in such artifice. Pippin is far more clever than it has ever been given credit for being.
This recent revival of Pippin is given deft guidance by director Diane Paulus. Paulus understands that Pippin is about illusion and her concept of setting the production within the confines of the circus makes sense in regards to piece's episodic, show-within-a-show construction, and also provides a platform for using said illusion, misdirection, and humbug as a means for making commentary on the struggle of the "Everyman." Acrobatics, trapeze acts, magic shows, knife-throwing, clowns, and various stunts of daring-do bring a visual and adrenaline inspiring gravitas to this show that accentuate the mirage mapped out by "Corner of the Sky."
You cannot talk about Pippin without addressing the relentless dance that permeates the show with hypnotic twists and turns. Bob Fosse set the standard for Pippin's angular contortions and precision, machine-like storytelling through choreography. There is something maniacal and ungodly in the eyes and movements of the dancers executing his dance stylings, making the "Players" a force to be reckoned with. There is an evil in Pippin that comes through in the choreography, taunting the title character in its insistent thrust. It was to all of our relief that the revival celebrated Fosse's style, without imitating it. Choreographer Chet Walker pays homage to Fosse, and keeps his edginess, but finds many original ways to apply his own techniques to make creepy and creative combine.
In saying goodbye to the Pippin revival, it is equally important to remember the revival's original cast and their contributions. Matthew James Thomas was an earnest, well-sung title character. He was appealing and kept Pippin from becoming the whiner he can sometimes seem. Patina Miller was electric, nearly to the point of combusting as she danced the Hell out of the Leading Player. Terrence Mann was at his very best (in a rare comedic turn) as King Charlemagne, and his real-life wife Charlotte d'Amboise was a hoot as the wicked, conniving Queen Fastrada, stopping the show with "Spread a Little Sunshine." Andrea Martin was spry fun as Pippin's grandmother, the libidinous Berthe. Has there ever been a sexier Lewis than Erik Altemus, making each arch of his back and extension of an appendage a sultry and lascivious gesture? This may or may not have not been the intention, but damn can that boy... dance. The heart of the show is found in the sublimely awkward portrayal of Catherine by Rachel Bay Jones. Her warmth, humor, and sometimes abrasive quality was exactly what was needed to create the believable character that Pippin would finally settle down with. How did she not get nominated for a Tony Award for that nuanced performance of absolute perfection?
So we say goodbye to Pippin as the lights of its marquis dim and that "one perfect flame" is extinguished. We can revel in the knowledge that this production made a new case for a musical that many thought to be dated and unworthy of revival. Now, a new generation has been exposed to the charms of Pippin, it's soaring Stephen Schwartz score, and its spot-on interpretation of the personal journey of the "Everyman." There is still "Magic to Do" for this musical and its intimate message of finding joy in the simple things in life.