Tony Awards: 'Pippin' brings the musical to a new generation

Tony Award nominee 'Pippin' could already have boasted a perfect-fit cast even before it added a circus theme to the show that will make your eyes pop.

Joan Marcus/Boneau/Bryan-Brown/AP
'Pippin' stars Andrea Miller (l.) and Matthew James Thomas (r.).

The revival of the 1970s musical “Pippin” is a frontrunner for some of the top prizes at the Tony Awards tonight, including Best Revival of a Musical, Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical, and Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical.

And I was (incredibly) lucky enough to have seen the revival, complete with its current cast, when the show was performed at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., where it made its world debut before moving to Broadway.

I’ve been also lucky enough to see a lot of shows in my life, but that one would be in at least my top three, if not occupying the number one slot.

Since I wasn’t around in the 1970s, I don’t have the built-in nostalgia factor that comes with this show, which premiered in 1972. But I can still see that it’s a hard show to get right. It’s a show that, ostensibly, is put on by traveling performers who have been looking for someone who is daring enough to participate in their grand finale. What is that finale? That's kept hush-hush until the end. But they think they’ve found the perfect person in Pippin, the son of Charlemagne (yes, that Charlemagne). Pippin, meanwhile, is trying to find meaning in his life – he doesn’t know what he wants to do, but he knows he wants it to be something grand and exciting.

It’s a show that has a lot of shifting moods – it takes a positive view of the world (see: what Pippin finally decides to do with his life) but also offers ruthless commentary on some subjects (see: the song “War Is A Science,” which is as decisively an indictment of war as you’re likely to ever hear). And that plot line with the traveling players, which comes to a head at the end of the show, adds another layer that you really need to be invested in for the finale to move you.

It’s hard to do. Before the A.R.T. version, I’d seen the show twice, once in a videotaped version of a live show (it did include actor Ben Vereen, who won a Tony for his “Pippin” role, as the Lead Player), and I’d seen a school production. Parts of them were more well-done than others.

A.R.T.’s “Pippin,” however, was perfect.

I was lucky enough to spend a summer reviewing plays for a local newspaper, and there’s usually something – maybe too-bright lighting or dancing that needs to be practiced – that needs to be improved in every production. I just… literally can’t find anything to critique about the show I saw of “Pippin.” 

The current Broadway production has a circus theme, meaning that the action takes place in a big top tent and the ensemble, who in addition to playing the traveling players take on roles such as Charlemagne’s soldiers, are all extremely skilled gymnasts and circus performers. (The show was created with the participation of Gypsy Snider of the Montreal-based circus Les 7 Doigts de la Main.) The first few minutes of the show, in which the cast sings “Magic to Do” and the ensemble perform various feats, are enough to make your jaw drop.

Just about every member of the cast is a famous name and none disappoint. Terence Mann, long beloved to me as the actor who starred as Javert in “Les Miserables” and the Beast in the musical adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast,” uses his strong, commanding voice to good effect in “War Is A Science,” with the perfect edge to his voice when he delivers some of sardonic Charlemagne’s one-liners. His real-life wife Charlotte d’Amboise is poisonously perky as his wife Fastrada, and her dance number during her song “Spread a Little Sunshine” was a highlight. You have the actress who starred as Cassie in “A Chorus Line,” why not let her dance a little?

The actor who played Pippin, Matthew James Thomas, is less known than his co-stars, but his rendition of the lovely “Corner of the Sky” – performed in front of “Pippin” composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz the night I saw it, an experience that has to be fairly nerve-wracking – was faultless and he effectively portrayed Pippin's wistfulness and impatience at his current life. And as the Leading Player, “Sister Act” Tony nominee Patina Miller, in a role most famously portrayed by Vereen, was mesmerizing – the Leading Player is a showman/woman, with lots of smiles and glee, but Miller’s Leading Player proved to have a dangerous edge when thwarted.

By now, you’ve probably heard about Andrea Miller, who portrays Pippin’s grandmother Berthe. I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but while delivering what, for my money, is the show’s catchiest song, “No Time at All,” Miller, who is 66, performs stunts that would make a 20-year-old think twice.

The current Broadway iteration of “Pippin” dusts off any mothballs and makes it a vibrant production. Check it out – they’re doing some magic.

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