Courtney Rizzo, MBA Class of 2015
I was surprised by Pippin. Penned by the great Stephen Schwartz, it has been in the standard musical theatre canon for decades, yet I didn’t have preconceived notions of the show. From the advertisements, I knew that the Diane Paulus-directed revival is set in a circus tent, and from my roommate (history undergraduate degree) who commented, “Ah yes, Pippin, the son of Charlemagne,” I knew it had some kind of historical story line.
Indeed, a troupe of circus performers frame historical Pippin’s coming-of-age tale. In a story we all can relate to, the show begins as Pippin graduates from university and tries to choose a career path that he finds fulfilling. Though the script departs from Pippin’s true story with the exception of his royal family tree, it was a good enough frame for the age-old “what should I do with my life to give it meaning” (dare I say, hero’s journey) theme.
The circus provides several interesting things to watch on stage at once, from trapeze to hand balancing acts to stylized dance numbers. When Pippin visits his grandmother Berthe (Andrea Martin), she performs an unexpected, show-stopping number that escalates from a sweet song to a full-fledged circus act. Martin won a Tony Award for the role.
“I like how they mix in the magic and illusions. It’s very entertaining,” said Julie Lee, my seat partner for the afternoon and fellow MBA study group member. “And they’re so flexible! It makes my body hurt just watching.”
The wide and shallow seating in the Music Box Theater complements the big top circus tent setting well. The extra ropes and colorful flags hanging in the house between the theater boxes and the light booms added to the atmosphere.
To no fault of the revival production’s creative team, Pippin feels dated. The synth orchestrations and the Fosse choreography will always place the piece in a certain time period. A few mistakes didn’t help that tired feeling, which I supposed is bound to happen with that many circus acts onstage for eight shows a week. But a dropped hat or missed jump didn’t faze the seasoned players, who kept the show moving.
Pippin debuted in 1972 and is in the vein of Candide (the operetta based on the satirical novel) and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (the musical based on the biblical tale) in story and style. Like these other classic musical theatre pieces, a narrator leads the audience through the protagonist’s journey. Here, the narrator is the Leading Player of the troupe. The role is to be done in a very presentational, theatrical manner, but Ciara Renée’s affected singing impacted her diction. As Julie astutely pointed out, the narrator is supposed to push the story along, but that was difficult when we couldn’t understand her words.
In the way that clowns can make you feel weird or sad, there are dark and strange moments as Pippin tries different careers. He makes a bumbling soldier, an unwilling playboy, and a dejected politician before finding something to call his own, which makes him look just unskilled rather than unfulfilled. When he does settle down, it is for family, and with a woman who is presented more as an actor playing a role than a real wife.
The end of the show becomes Theatre with a capital T out of nowhere, leaving Julie and me to wonder if we are supposed to feel hopeful about the career journey in front of us, or if it’s all for naught.