Friday, April 12, 2013

Pippin: Not Your Average, Everyday Kind of Show

Pippin is a show that, regardless of its actual merit, engenders a lot of affection. It is telling that, after the stunning acrobatics and joyful greeting of beloved actors, the moments that were met with the most applause were not conclusions of songs, but rather beginnings - the opening piano chords of the overture, the beginning of the Manson Trio, the only Fosse choreography preserved from the original production. The audience was so delighted to be there, reliving their first time with the show, enjoying this new time, ready to be swept away by the entrancing Magic in the opening number.

"Magic to Do" - Patina Miller & Company
"With You" with acrobats.
It's a very familiar show at this point - after Little Shop, it seems to be one of the more "done" musicals for high schools. Jackson 5 covered their songs. And there are familiar faces up there for us to love, too - Matthew James Thomas, recently of Spiderman, as our increasingly charismatic titular character, Patina Miller, of Sister Act fame (a striking if unnerving presence), the real-life couple of Terrence Mann and Charlotte d'Amboise deliciously hamming it up as king and queen, and Broadway favorite Andrea Martin, holding the audience all too easily in her capable brilliant hands.

The acrobatics are designed by Gypsy Snider, co-founder of 7 Fingers, familiar to NY audiences for the thrilling yet personal acrobatic Traces at the Union Square Theatre. And, as performed by a mix of Broadway hoofers and actual acrobats and Olympic-grade gymnasts, they are truly thrilling to behold. Even the seasoned stars get their hand in, with Terrence Mann recalling his Barnum roots with a bit of juggling and unicycling, Charlotte d'Amboise reminding us exactly why she's been starring in Chicago for years, and Andrea Martin stopping the show with her aerial performance during "No Time At All" (I should take this moment to say: Andrea Fucking Martin, y'all. If for no other reason, see the show for her).

[unrelated sidebar: it's possible something will be made of our Leading Player, immortalize by Ben Vereen, being played by a woman. But since my first Leading Player, at my high school's production was a woman (and a kickass one at that), I was pretty blasé about it]

Manson Trio in "Glory"
The set design is pretty clever, venturing out into the audience a bit but not too far, covering the orchestra pit, apron, and boxes with chipped-paint clapboard circus walls. The costumes of the Players are treated to match - everything looks 15 years past shiny and new, lending a sinister and crumbling air of decay to what purports to be a hero's journey. The sleek polish of the Leading Player is just a distraction from the rotten aim of the Players' "magic."

In fact, there's a lot of distraction going on here: some good music, stunning acrobatics, flying spinning dancing Players, and a uniformly talented cast (I have not yet mentioned Rachel Bay Jones, who worms her way into your heart with her odd cooing voice, nor have I given full credit to Matthew James Thomas, playing the role in what seemed at first a rather boring manner, but which grew on us as Pippin grew into his life): all these seek, with a good deal of success, to distract us from the central, troubling fact: 

Pippin isn't actually a very good show. 

Matthew James Thomas as Pippin

With the memory of "Magic to Do" still drifting through our heads, we perhaps do not notice how utterly un-uplifting Pippin's I-Want ballad is (dear god, can we finally admit "Corner of the Sky" is just bad writing?). We are willing to forgive clunky storytelling and caricatures with Andrea Martin there to melt out hearts and make us laugh until we cry. We might even neglect to identify just how badly-written "Think About Your Life" is, the melody leaning back lazily when it should drive forward with an overpowering compulsion to join, to follow. With Andrea Martin or Terrence Mann or Charlotte d'Amboise at the helm, we are more willing to forgive the worser-written songs in favor of the gems like "Glory" or "Simple Joys" the Leading Player gets to deliver.

But we know it, somewhere in us. Just as we know that there really is a massive problem with an ending that can't decide what it wants to be. Pippin's hero's journey must inevitably lead him, or so the players would have us think, to self-immolation and immortality. He rejects it, as he should, but that choice, too, is tainted. The Leading Player decries him a coward and a compromiser, and she's not half-wrong. He chooses mediocrity, when he had wanted to be extraordinary. This is a false alternative, mediocrity-and-compromise-or-death, and I don't think the show realizes it. Do they want us to be uplifted with our hero? To immolate ourselves? Or to wallow in our own ordinariness and pretend to be satisfied?

It took Pippin's third mention of searching for "meaning" that I realized I'd seen this story somewhere else: Princeton searches for his purpose in Avenue Q, only to realize, after all his struggle, he still hasn't found it. But Avenue Q found a solution to this problem where Pippin did not - not finding your purpose or meaning does NOT mean compromise or self-sacrifice; it merely means you haven't found it yet. So Avenue Q can end with some degree of hope, whereas Pippin ends with contemptuous shrug - and we can't pretend that contempt isn't also directed at us when both female characters have made it a point to emphasize their own ordinariness, Fastrada in particular likening herself to "all you housewives and mothers out there." If Pippin chooses to align himself with ordinary Catherine, he aligns with us - so are we all compromisers.

And with this false alternative, we are left with a particularly sour taste in our mouths as the show winds down. The Leading Player rips into Pippin's choice, and demands that everyone, and all the Magic, abandon him, even taking out the lights and the orchestra. Are we meant to think Pippin has made the wrong choice? Is Magic, is the joy of musical theater (which, let's face it, is the real magic going on here), always malevolent at its heart? And when young Theo runs forward to reprise that god-awful "Corner of the Sky" song, calling back all the Players again, should we be happy the cycle is repeating? After all, they're about to start singing "Magic to Do" again and that's a fucking rad song. But we still know its end goal - any wishing on a star will lead to self-immolation or mediocrity. Thanks, show.

This is a brilliant production. It's a pity it's not a better show.

Oh, one further reason to see the show:

This is Orion Griffiths. He is basically Thor, but with
acrobatics. He is also shirtless for much of the show.
You're welcome.

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