This is not your high school's Pippin. Not unless your drama teacher had the budget to hire world class Canadian acrobats as players, or the clout to bring in show composer Stephen Schwartz himself to tweak his own lyrics and dialogue. Not, in other words, unless your drama teacher was Tony Award nominated director Diane Paulus, who achieves a Triple Crown of Revivals with American Repertory Theater's currently running Pippin, her follow-up to Broadway's Hair and The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess.
Pippin's imminent Broadway transfer (March 23, 2013) was announced on its opening night, and little wonder. The show, a Broadway hit which played from 1972-1977, has everything one looks for in a musical, including a superb cast. Matthew James Thomas, a West End star unfamiliar to those U.S. audiences not lucky enough to have caught him as a Peter Parker alternate in Spider-Man: The Musical, is a hugely appealing young Pippin, while Broadway belter Patina Miller--unhindered by her Sister Act nun's habit--is a forceful, Fosse-fied Leading Player. Terrence Mann (Broadway's original Javert in Les Misèrables) is back and marvelously arch as King Charles, aided by Broadway's A Chorus Line star Charlotte D'Amboise as his scheming showgirl/consort Fastrada. (Her "Spread a Little Sunshine" is a triple-threat knockout.) And, in a phenomenal cameo, Tony Award-winning funny lady Andrea Martin appears as Pippin's grandmother Berthe, exuding a life force in her own right—what Martin gets up to during her "carpe diem" song, "No Time at All" (complete with audience sing-along), is best kept under wraps. Suffice to say the 66-year-old exceeds expectations, putting her creakier contemporaries to shame. All of the above are flanked by members of Montreal's brave and brainy Les 7 Doigts acrobatic troupe.
The storyline itself is one of those generic hero's sagas—young prince Pippin sets out into the cruel world in search of himself. It shouldn't work, but does magnificently thanks to Roger O. Hirson's sardonic book. The script, which calls for a troupe of actors to stage Pippin's already-staged tale, was meta before its time in the 1970s, and Paulus' superimposition of a circus setting--nouveau cirque, actually, more Spiegeltent than Big Top--is inspired. Many audience members will want to repeat their viewing experience just to catch every last breathtaking feat performed by the 7 Doigt gymnasts, as choreographed by company co-founder Gypsy Snider (the offspring of San Francisco's famed Pickle Family). It would be worth multiple visits just to see acrobat Orion Griffiths carry off his signature ascent of a tower comprised of five wobbly cylinders again.
The show's Act Two famously goes "dark," and the milieu changes radically from spectacle to philosophical speculation. However, Rachel Bay Jones is terrifically touching as Catherine, a rich widow who tries to pull Pippin out of his existential funk (she aces the brief but poignant torch song "I Guess I'll Miss the Man"), and Andrew Cekala is just right as her young son Theo, a important element in this ready-made family.
Where the show goes really dark is the point when the Lead Player--who has been part commentator, part cheerleader--and her company prod Pippin to prove his extraordinariness by going out in a literal blaze of glory. We've come to trust and love these fellow travelers (projections, perhaps, of Pippin's interior life), and it is truly disturbing to see them turn on him. But what is drama without contrast and conflict?
A musical that is 100% entertaining in the truest sense, that also forces you to examine the big questions? What a concept. It's one that this Pippin happily carries with utmost intelligence and panache.