|Photo: Michael J. Lutch|
Allow me to cut right to the chase: Diane Paulus's revival of Pippin, which opens Thursday, is sublime. At the risk of sounding cliched, there are just not enough superlatives to describe how excellent, brilliant, wonderful, warm, engaging, astonishing, entertaining and just plain delicious it is. I might need to start making adjectives up for this one. It's been a long time since I saw a show that was so tightly directed, so gleefully and brilliantly performed, so genuinely and ecstatically received by its audience--so very, very good.
Some of this is, of course, the source material. Pippin is a great show, if also a quirky one. It has a consistently strong, memorable score that was released on Motown Records, and that most people of my generation thus grew up listening to and loving, even if most of us never saw the show or knew what it was about. It had an innovative, fringe-influenced book that reflects the darkening moods and growing inwardness of the 1970s and yet refuses to relinquish the dogged optimism and communal spirit of the 1960s. It has been indelibly marked by the brilliant and complicated Bob Fosse, whose trademark jazz hands, bowler hats, swiveling pelvises, and skin-tight costumes helped make the original Broadway production a huge hit that practically bellowed his name at every turn. Fosse's shadow looms so large, in fact, that it's no wonder the show hasn't been revived on Broadway before. I can imagine that the task was daunting, but Diane Paulus's production manages to keep the show squarely in Fosse territory, and yet to radically reinvent it at the same time.
I've long admired Diane Paulus's productions. She strikes me as the best kind of postmodernist: she regularly tries to to simultaneously reinvent and pay homage, to wildly different ends. The Donkey Show was not only hilarious and weird and unlike anything I'd ever seen, but it also tapped directly into the Off Off Broadway experimentalism that was hot during the 1960s, and that she has long been influenced by: theater as communal celebration and ritual, theater as sociopolitical commentary, theater as a bonding force between performer and spectator. I loved it, and remember it fondly as another high point in my life as a theatergoer. Yet some of her more recent productions haven't quite managed the same kind of delicate balance. Don't get me wrong: I saw her revival of Hair twice. But I've studied the original production a great deal, and aside from a slight shift away from its more aggressively masculine tone, I was never convinced that her revival was so terribly radical a departure. Similarly, for all the hype around her Porgy and Bess, I wasn't convinced that the changes Stephen Sondheim got all pissy about were all that big a deal in performance, either.
But her Pippin nails the landing, and then some. As noted, purists need not fret: The show remains strongly committed to Fosse, to whom it pays homage in multiple ways: the costumes, the postures, the dances, the splayed fingers, the leering faces, the bobbling pelvises, even much of the casting.
Yet at the same time, Paulus modernizes the production with a number of choices that threaten to come off as gimmicky or superficial, but never, ever do. Set in a circus bigtop, and featuring players drawn from the Montreal-based troupe, Les 7 Doigts de la Main, this Pippin has a strongman, trapeze artists, contortionists, jugglers, acrobats, and guys who balance on impossibly precarious contraptions for our viewing pleasure. On the surface, this all sounds perfectly nice, but what it does in performance is drive home Fosse's fascination with powerful, twisting, sensual bodies, while dazzling audiences in brand new ways.
Casting Patina Miller in the role of the Leading Player--a character that Ben Vereen has pretty much trademarked--also sounds a little gimmicky: "Oh, a female Leading Player? Cool, whatever." But again, in performance, the choice shifts the dynamic dramatically: the supportive, headstrong, ultimately petulant Leading Player is as sharp and sexy and sneering as Vereen was, but now also touches, in the most subtle and fleeting of ways, on just about every aspect of contemporary feminist philosophy. And she totally rocks her jaunty, frighteningly angular bowler hat.
Then there's the rest of the company. Terrence Mann is perfectly cast, and perfectly pitched, as Charles, Pippin's goofily distracted, blithely bloodthirsty father. Mann's rendition of "War Is a Science," with its slipping, speeding tempos, made sense to me for the first time, ever; it and "Glory" do well, also, to carefully reflect what is eerily seductive--beautiful, even--about blood and gore and violent death. Mann can ride a unicycle, to boot--who knew? Charlotte D'Amboise plays up the ridiculous stereotype that is Fastrada, while dancing up a storm. Rachel Bay Jones adds nuance, dimension, and a touch of pain to the bubbly Catherine in the show's quieter and yet endlessly compelling second act. And Matthew James Thomas is a winning, scruffy Pippin, whose desperate search for meaning sets him off from the rest of the ensemble. Thomas is not as intensely physical as the rest of the cast, which works, surprisingly, to the show's advantage: as a lost everyman, his Pippin is just as blown away as we are by the taut, beautiful, powerful bodies surrounding him.
And then there's Andrea Martin, whose Berthe brings the house down with an absolutely brilliant blend of grandmotherly warmth and matronly bite. It's a rare, beautiful thing to see a single performer so thoroughly charm an enormous audience as quickly as she does here. I remember once seeing Neil Young address a screaming arena of thousands by grunting "hey," at them, as if they were all hanging out in his living room with him, languidly sipping cheap, lukewarm beer. Martin can do this too, and it's awesome. Within moments of "No Time at All," she had the entire house singing along with her--loudly and happily--as the lyrics were projected onto the backdrop. The communal spirit she musters in this scene is, again, a nod to Paulus' admiration of the 1960s Off Off Broadway scene: I suspect that if Martin had asked us to run out into the street and take our clothes off, we totally might've. But then, the stunts Martin accomplishes on the trapeze later in the scene--and no, I'm not joking--are something fresh, new, and unbelievably wonderful.
Which makes sense, really, since all the superlatives I've ended up using in this writeup apply to every single minute of this fresh, new, unbelievably wonderful revival.