Pippin is a strange musical. There, I said it. A product of the 1970s, it came to Broadway at a time when a large percentage of the U. S. population was young – twenties mostly. It takes a youthful dream – changing the world – and proposes an unpopular alternative, settling down with love and family. Guess what wins?
Even stranger, its protagonist is more or less a dolt. He loves his dream, but he’s no good at anything he tries (even settling down with love and family, actually, though he gets better at it).
Like his later musical, Wicked, however, composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz shows an uncanny ability to tap into a deeply felt need. And, that need is the same in both musicals: to BE somebody.
Of course, such angst goes only so far with audiences, so Mr. Schwartz and book writer Roger O. Hirson need distractions to bridge the angst episodes. And, director Diane Paulus, who previously “reimagined” both Hair and Porgy and Bess (that one with a new title even: The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess), came up with a guaranteed distraction – the circus.
And, you know what, those circus performers (Sascha Bachmann, Keven Langlois Boucher, Sammy Dinneen, Nicolas Jelmoni, Anna Kachalova, Charlotte O’Sullivan, and Katie Smith) are pretty darn distracting. They command attention, amaze with feats of strength and balance, and even have enough show business flair to do a trick over when it wasn’t perfect – and nail it the second time.
They also outshine the dancers, who under Chet Walker’s tutelage, often pay homage to Bob Fosse, the original director and choreographer of Pippin.
Stephen Schwartz shows an uncanny ability to tap into a deeply felt need: to BE somebody…
The old pros fare best among the actors. As Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother, Priscilla Lopez reminds us that she’s still as sassy as when she sang “Nothing” in the original production of A Chorus Line. She’s only featured in one scene, and her big number, “No Time at All,” is a sing-along, but in Ms. Lopez’s hands it’s as memorable as “What I Did for Love.”
This production also features John Rubinstein, playing Charles, Pippin’s father. Mr. Rubinstein, who originated the role of Pippin, easily upstages Brian Flores, who makes for a callow title character. Reminiscing for journalists prior to the show, Mr. Rubinstein recalled his last visit to the Civic Theatre, in 1968, with a tour of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. The leading man fell ill, and his replacement hadn’t made it to the theatre by curtain time. Mr. Rubinstein jumped into the pit, sat down at the piano, and accompanied cast members in entertaining the audience until the show could begin, more than an hour late. It was good to see Mr. Rubinstein still doing more than his part to entertain a Civic Theatre audience 47 years later.
Dominique Lemieux’s costumes and Kenneth Posner’s lighting stand out amongst the show’s technical aspects. Jonathan Deans and Garth Helm’s sound design fell victim to a long line of sound design failures at the Civic. I’m not certain what the problems are, but they seem to affect most of Broadway/San Diego’s productions there. In this instance, spoken dialogue was quite muffled, detracting from the ability to follow the plot more than generally.
In the end, I’m not convinced that Pippin’s creators had much faith in their own creation. It may be fine that what sells the show is its razzle-dazzle and not its meat, but you may find yourself only partially sated as you walk away.