Wednesday, December 31, 2014

"Pippin" Revisited


I hate to say goodbye to PIPPIN, unexpectedly one of my favorite productions of the last few years.  Having seen Fosse’s original, I was dubious about the reinterpretation, but was happily blown away by almost every aspect.

Long-run-itis takes a heavy toll on some shows (it did on the original CHICAGO, NINE, and many other shows I’ve seen multiple times.) Maintaining the original impact and excitement of a production is hard, if not impossible. One of the few exceptions in my theatre-going career was A CHORUS LINE, which was in as tip-top shape at the end of its fifteen-year run as it was when I saw it pre-opening (I can’t vouch for what happened in between.)

As PIPPIN prematurely ends its Broadway run:

John Dossett remains perhaps the best character-slash-leading-man in New York, playing every role he does with 100% integrity and consistency; he holds down the fort with his Charlemagne, less campy-winky-nudgy than his predecessor, and he brings out the best in his merry compatriot Charlotte D’Amboise (as he did with Bernadette Peters in GYPSY, doing what I call “Acting For Two” and making her performance seem far better than it was.)

Priscilla Lopez is a fine Berthe and I’m thrilled I got to see her do the part, having seen her 39 years ago in the original A CHORUS LINE in the aforementioned pre-Broadway days. The part is served best by a true yakka-yakka-yakka vaudevillian, but they’re in short supply in 2014; we’ll take the musical comedy legends as and while we can.

I greatly miss Matthew James Thomas in the title role; he was gorgeous, sang like crazy, danced like crazy, had a twinkle in the eye, a sense of the offbeat, and a sincere wistfulness that perfectly complemented the wild circus surrounding him.  One Josh Kaufman plays the role now, and he sings pretty well, goes through his scenes pretty well, dances notably less well – he lacks star quality in both his everyday suburban-guy-at-the-supermarket-cash-register appearance, general energy, and acting chops in terms of vividly relating to his stage family.  You know my shtick: far too few musical theatre performers go to acting class, to the tune of practically none.

Unfortunately I saw an understudy for the Leading Player; I have to cut the gal a break, since it was her first performance in the role, and she certainly gave a creditable rendition of the part; but there’s just no way to have PIPPIN without a true star up front, taking the audience by the throat and threatening to strangle them and throw them into the firepit in the Finale with her/his bare hands.

Some of the production choices bother me more now than originally, partly because of my repeat visits, and partly because new surrounding weaknesses accentuate others.  The heavily truncated, mangled, hurried “War Is A Science” seems as if they could barely be bothered to do it at all, and wanted it over with as quickly as possible – unfortunately unaware that the extended original (available on YouTube and DVD) was one of Bob Fosse’s most ingenious creations ever, and Stephen Schwartz’s lyrics were well worth the trouble. Likewise, removing the war-statistics context for the famous “Manson Trio” does it no favors, stripping it of exactly what Fosse was saying (people routinely mistake Fosse for a choreographer, when he was above all a writer, sociologist and social critic.) The heavily reduced orchestra is no asset, despite terrific playing by all, and the expert re-orchestration by the always expert Larry Hochman, forced to do a great deal with a tiny group to work with.

I doubt there’s been a director in the house for some time. It’s subtle; a little loose in pace and electricity. Saddest of all is the change in one of my favorite performances in years, that of Rachel Bay Jones as Catherine; where her original characterization was hugely original, hugely funny, risky, on the edge, but just inside the edge, ultimately moving and bordering on heartbreaking, enlivening the potentially dreary “Act Two” – repetition, a long run, and probably the absence of a director’s return has tipped the scales towards a FORBIDDEN BROADWAY pastiche of her original performance, hugely jokey, over-the-top, exaggerated out of all proportion and outside the show.  And yet – perhaps because her incredible original performance is indelibly imprinted on my mind – when Pippin finally turns to see her in the Finale, and realizes what’s important in life, I still felt a huge gulp in my throat and a tear in the eye, same as when I saw the show in previews and fell apart.  So she’s still got something.  And for that type of moment, I say to PIPPIN: Adieu, and thanks for the memories. 

© 2014 Fred Barton 


  1. Hey, Fred. I found you again and now I've subscribed. Facebook just sucks without you! You should expand your tabs to include upcoming performances (by you OR your arrangements). So, I know you hate that "H" place more than dirt, but you love all your admirers. Will I see you at the reunion?

  2. Thanks, Mommadods! Now I have only one question. Who are you? (A fellow Harvardian, obviously, since our reunion is coming up.... not sure yet if I can go.) So Facebook blithely does the Kremlin's bidding and makes the dissident pages disappear – but apparently they regard me as a danger to society. Go figure.