Dec. 20th, 2012

prusik: Newton fractal centered at zero (Default)
Before I say anything about Pippin at the ART, I should probably list the mitigating circumstances: I thought Diane Paulus did a great job with Hair. Her Porgy and Bess annoyed me more than anything else. Pippin is probably closer to the former than the latter, so I was hopeful. However...

The woman next to me kept waving her hands as if she were a spectacularly arrhythmic conductor or maybe she thought she was calling cues. Either way, it was as if the show could not proceed without her doing something. The guy next to her apparently believed if he didn't sing along the show would be ruined. (The show actually asks you to sing along with to the chorus of "No Time at All." That's fine. He sang along whenever the fever struck him during the entire show.) The people behind me apparently know the guy playing Pippin. (They'd mentioned this before the show started.) They gave the "I'm in third row center and I know he can see me so I'm going to be especially appreciative" type of reaction. I'm all for people enjoying themselves at the theater, as long as it doesn't upstage the main event.

Also, I knew going in that the conceit here was that they would set Pippin in a circus. My bias is that I think this is a media studies major or theater major's idea of sophistication and edginess. It's what they do for their senior projects to prove they're real film or theater directors. Either that, or they re-set a work inside an insane asylum.

Pippin, however, has always been a play within a play. The story of Pippin's life is enacted by this wandering theater troupe. In this production, the wandering theater troupe is a circus. Setting Pippin inside a circus isn't intrinsically a bad idea. It's not like someone decided to do Juno (the musical based on Juno and the Paycock) as if it were performed by a circus troupe. If there is a musical (which isn't already set inside a circus) where this conceit could work, it's Pippin.

First, a quick overview of the changes for those who keep track of this sort of thing: Larry Hochman orchestrated for a pit of 12: 2 keyboards, violin/viola, cello, bass, guitar, 2 reeds, trumpet, trombone, 2 percussion. They cut "Welcome Home, Son." (I find it hard to care about this.) "War is a Science" has new lyrics so that it's now about how to keep the body count. "Glory" is missing at least one section (which shows up at the top of act two with new lyrics). In "No Time at All" has an extra time through the singalong chorus. i.e., Berthe doesn't interrupt us. "With You" has, I think, new dance music. "Spread a Little Sunshine" has a new dance arrangement. "Morning Glow" has a new ending, incorporating "Corner of the Sky", and makes reference to the fact that the show used to be a one act. (Yes, this means they cut the "hey, the crown doesn't fit" joke.)

There's now an entr'acte where the circus troupe does acrobatics. The missing part of "Glory" shows up at the top of act two with new lyrics about Pippin being king. "On the Right Track" has some minor changes, most notably the professions Pippin tries. "Extraordinary" has a bunch of new lyrics that, oddly, make it more ordinary. (I'm sad that the world of Pippin no longer has griffins.) They reconceived the finale, somewhat, about a decade ago. It now uses the lyrics on the cast album (which, AFAIK, were never used in the original production).

[Oh, and they honor the tradition of not listing "I Guess I'll Miss the Man" in the program. The Leading Player interjects during breaks but doesn't interrupt any of the singing. I think having the Leading Player literally say, "There isn't a song at this point in the show" is new though.]

No new songs. "Welcome Home, Son" is the only cut as far as I can tell. They even sang the rather stupid "Prayer for a Duck." I.e., if I haven't mentioned a song, it's because it seemed unchanged to me.

For all the changes, I can't really say whether the show is better or worse. It's just different. I guess some of the new lyrics are more pointed, perhaps more accomplished. They don't serve their dramatic function noticeably better than the originals though.

As for the conceit, I think it could have worked better. Ultimately, I don't know that it meshed well with the choreography. This production hired Chet Walker to choreograph in the style of Bob Fosse, and that he did. In some cases, he recreated the original choreography. The Manson Trio is explicitly credited in the program. In other case, it's a lovingly faithful pastiche. Portions of "Glory" looked like something out of Sweet Charity though.

Right away, though, there is a casting dilemma. The likelihood you can find people adept at both circus acrobatics and Fosse dance is pretty low. This cast has its acrobats and its Fosse dancers and the twain doesn't meet as often as one might like. Everyone does a little something but the serious dancing falls on only a few and the serious acrobats falls only a few others. They hide this well, but not well enough. (Part of this is so not their fault. One of the acrobats, well, mere mortals are not supposed to have bodies like that. I spent a lot of time watching what he was doing.)

The program has a short essay by Chet Walker where he talks about how Fosse's style "demanded that you interpret the written word and illustrate the lyric." That is, there was a meaning to everything he put on stage. Of the Fosse pieces that remained in the show, that was still true. However, the circus bits, while they were cool to watch, felt like distractions rather than anything that heightened the show in any meaningful sense. Some of the bits were breathtaking, but it felt like you could have replace any trick with any other breathtaking trick and the result would be the same. None of it was serving a dramatic function.

The result is rather than a synthesis of Fosse movement and circus movement, we got diluted Fosse. It's still a good time, but I was left wondering what the various feats of acrobatics had to do with anything. I'm not saying that circus acrobatics can't tell a story or further dramatic action. I'm saying that it didn't work for me in this case. Frankly, it might have worked better if they hadn't decided to choreography in the style of Fosse. If the acrobatics had been the entire movement vocabulary of the show, it might have worked better.

The cast, of course, is the dead giveaway that they have aspirations beyond a regional production. For the most part, they deliver.

Andrea Martin, as Berthe, only has the one scene and song, but she stops the show with it. She's amazing. Her part is too small to make it worth the price of the ticket, but it's also one of those few moments where the circus acrobatics really works.

Terrance Mann is terrific as Charlemagne. The gravitas and bluster are both there. It's a serious, grounded performance that's also utterly appropriate. He also makes a point of being someone completely different in the bits where he's merely a player in the circus.

Charlotte d'Amboise is ideal casting for Fastrada. Apparently, I only see her in roles where she has One Big Solo Dance Number. (I saw her Cassie in Chorus Line on Broadway.) She nails the role, doing just enough faux-innocent vamping that we get the idea, but not so much that we're annoyed.

Rache Bay Jones, as Catherine, is sweet and sympathetic. Her part, more than any other, has to function in both the inner story and the outer story at the same time. I.e., while the troupe is telling the story of Pippin, we are also getting a bit of the story of the troupe. The two intersect on her. Everything she does must make sense in the context of both stories and she succeeds admirably. (Incidentally, this is another place where the circus conceit actually works well, giving her a chance to build up the story of her position in the troupe in act one, in which she otherwise does not appear.)

Patina Miller is fine as the Leading Player. Unfortunately, she can't be a better Ben Vereen than Ben Vereen and his performance has been immortalized on DVD. Another reason, perhaps, not to choreograph in the style of Fosse. You'd think if the troupe is a circus, she'd be more of a ringmaster. However, her movement language is that Fosse and I'm surprised to realize how tightly choreographed the role is. The result is that she ends up looking like Ben Vereen's highly skilled and polished understudy. I have no idea what Patina Miller brings to the role.

Matthew James Thomas is my only disappointment. Unfortunately, he plays Pippin. His thin, high voice is fine for the part. (He may be the only Pippin in history to end "Extraordinary" on tonic rather than shouting the last note.) His scene with Terrance Mann at the end of act one plays probably about as well as it has ever been played. My only gripe with his performance is that it's whiny and makes Pippin look like an overentitled spoiled brat. (To be fair, he kind of is.)

Pippin, as he's written, is already a bit precious. For me, Matthew James Thomas overeggs the pudding. Whereas everyone else was giving these interesting, surprisingly nuanced performances, his felt one-note to me. I'm meant to be sympathetic to his yearning for something truly fulfilling and be disappointed along with him when everything he tries fails to live up to that. Instead, knowing that there was a revised ending, I was hoping he'd immolate himself in the fire. While that's an audacious acting choice to make me feel that way, I don't think it's the right one.

As for the revised ending, well, it's better than the revised ending to Porgy and Bess. (I saw that in early previews at the ART. By the time the production reached Broadway, they'd reinstated the original ending.) For me, it was an ending that worked better in theory than in practice. It satisfies the structure, but makes no sense.

[Pippin is 40 years old. I think the statute of limitations is up on spoilers. If you want to remain unspoiled, skip the next 7 paragraphs.]

Of course, Pippin is ultimately about this troupe of players who go around convincing young men to immolate themselves in this act of perfect fulfillment. The way they do this is they find someone idealistic enough to believe in such a thing, have him act the part of Pippin and by the end he's so broken down that he'll commit suicide. The musical is much more subtle than my description. So subtle, that some people fail to recognize that the story of Pippin's life is the play within the play. Also, the act of immolation is presented much more appealingly than I've have here.

In the performance we see, the suicide does not happen because the man playing Pippin and the woman playing Catherine have genuinely fallen in love with each other. It's through the recognition of that love that the man playing Pippin saves himself. (Yes, it's a bit trite, but no one claimed Pippin is great literature.) The Leading Player apologizes to the audience and says if there is someone who wants to experience, lights, sets, magic, and perfect fulfillment, they are right there in his mind. The entire cast except for Pippin, Catherine and her son essentially abandon the show. No lights, no set, no costumes (they've all been systematically stripped from the show as the finale proceeded) and finally no music.

The original non-ending ending was Pippin sings a bit a cappella, then Catherine asks Pippin if how he feels about his decision. He responds that he feels trapped, but that's not a bad ending for a musical comedy. Ta-da. Jazz hands. Curtain.

Yeah. That's rather unsatisfying.

The ending is musically more satisfying, but dramatically puzzling. That is, Pippin sings a bit a cappella. Pippin Catherine and her son go off stage. However, he comes back on and sings a bit of "Corner of the Sky" center stage. The circus troupe returns and we get one more reprise of the hit tune.

The implication is that the cycle has continued with the son taking the father's place. What has always been implicit with the show, that they would go on to find other young men to immolate is now explicit. That's fine. What makes no sense is that it's the son. You'd think the man playing Pippin and woman playing Catherine would march back on stage and drag the son away. Also, the son is way too young to play Pippin.

The show has been flirting with meta-theater all night. They make explicit references to the audience. They even crawl through the audience during the entr'acte. (The hot acrobat crawled over my armrest. I could have reached out to touch him but I decided he wouldn't appreciate that.) What would have both made sense and satisfy the dramatic structure is if some guy about the right age to play Pippin walked out of the audience onto center stage and started singing "Corner of the Sky" (and in the right key so that when the orchestra enters, there is no catastrophe.) Of course, no production can afford to hire a guy to sit in the audience for an entire show so that he can sing 8 bars of "Corner of the Sky" at the very end.

[Ok, I've stopped giving away the ending.]

On the whole, I enjoyed it. Pippin is an unfortunate vacuum within his own musical. (Even then, Matthew James Thomas does have his moments.) The cast that surrounds him is pretty awesome. If the circus bits feel like distractions more than anything else, they are at least breathtaking distractions. It's possible to go into the theater and have a really good time. (By contrast, I left Porgy and Bess somewhat grumpy.)

I've always liked the score and this cast does it justice. Right now, I'm hoping it continues to Broadway. That makes it more likely we'll get a cast album and the changes to the score will be documented.

[As an aside, as I was leaving, the conducting woman to my left was complaining about a cut song. For a moment, I thought I'd found the one person in the world who cares about "Welcome Home, Son." Nope, she was talking about "Kind of Woman," which Catherine did sing in the show. The conducting woman missed it entirely. Maybe she was too busy waving her arms around to keep the show in motion or something.]

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