It's no secret that Diane Paulus's production of Pippin relies heavily on circus for its style, theme and ensemble of performers. If you like death-defying feats, incredible stunts, and shiny things, this will please you because you are a normal person who likes things. If you are me, you might find the audience excitement at all things circus a little grating because you long for something deeper.
Pippin is a strange musical. The Leading Player (Patina Miller) is the ringleader of this band of roustabouts who are off to tell you the story of Charlemagne's son Pippin (Matthew James Thomas). Pippin, man or actor or both, is struggling to find his place in this world. Should he be a soldier like his father (Terrence Mann). Should he abandon his serious pretensions and live a little as suggested by his grandmother Berthe (Andrea Martin). Will he outwit his devious stepmother Fastrada (Charlotte D'Amboise) who hopes to see her son (Erik Altemus) on the throne. Or will the pastoral life with Catherine (Rachel Bay Jones) be his choice.
Here, Paulus creates a wonderful world of performance where the
roustabout players in a circus tent set the back-drop for the
fourth-wall breaking to "put on a show" for us, the audience. But when the "actors" begin to revolt and the artifice breaks down the
musical moves into darker territory. I like this self-referential
breakdown but I find that productions don't usually leave a bread crumb
trail in Act I about what is to come in Act II or set up that Act II
issue at all so it feels abrupt and disjointed. Paulus's
approach gives more reason and context to the storytelling gambit but
who Pippin is, what he's looking for, or what his struggle is is wholly
absent making the "breakdown" later even more disconnected. I fear this is a combination of Matthew James Thomas's light performance and Paulus's direction.
Maybe the book doesn't
leave much room to connect Act I and Act II. I've seen two professional productions of
Pippin in the last year and each seemed to handle different aspects of
the musical well and fall down in others. How do you solve a problem
like Pippin? No seriously. How do you? I'm still wondering.
In Kansas City, Eric Rosen's production struggled with the players aspect--using punk rock as the aesthetic and inspiration for much of the orchestration. But the serious moments there, where Pippin struggles in his quest for identity were stronger, clearer, and more poignant--I will never forget the powerful battle scene and how shell-shocked Pippin comes to his grandmother truly hurting and needing comfort. Also despite the overabundance of sexy in the Paulus production, Rosen's use of actors playing musical instruments made for the sexiest of rendition of With You, where the seduction is played out via string instruments.
Adding to the overall über-stylized approach in the Paulus production was the use of Fosse-inspired choreography (with some recreations as well). As exciting as it was to see it for its technical form and pizazz, I was surprised how the Fosse dance language made me feel like the production was less fresh--hearkening backwards where so much of the production felt new. But even if Andrea Martin sings the bejesus out of her showstopping number and Patina Miller feels like the second coming of Ben Vereen, I was more annoyed than entertained. With every leap, spin, and circus achievement the audience excitedly claps and cheers. But there's something needy about the circus tricks that bugged me (and the audience's Pavlovian response). And this is my problem. Not yours. Why must it demand constant approval like a fucking toddler. Ugh. We see you. You can bend yourself into a pretzel. Now go do something meaningful. Connect your actions, movement, interpretation to the work. Right, it's still Pippin--so I might be looking for depth where there is none. But you know, I found there were deeper moments in the KC Rep production and I actually really liked them (even if that production was still uneven). So I believe it is possible to find depth in Pippin, but here I don't think Paulus was looking for it.
And that might be fine. Not everything on stage asks that we use our brain. And sometimes I can give over to the fun. IT'S TRUE! Rare but true. One Man, Two Guvnors and Newsies are some shows that leap to mind that might not have been fathoms deep but I managed to enjoy them nevertheless. But for some reason the begging and mugging of the Pippin circus tricks was just too much for me. I was off to see Philip Glass after Pippin so it could just be I'm enjoying spending time in my head these days. I think it is safe to say that this is strong production, with crowd-pleasing moments, and just not one for me. C'est la vie.