Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Broadway's Love Affair With 'Pippin' Continues

When the musical Pippin first opened on Broadway in 1972 it was a sensation.

Not because it broke new ground for its genre, though it did.

And not because all the critics loved it, because they didn't. Nor did audiences immediately flock to see it.

No, Pippin triumphed the old-fashioned way. The show earned its nearly five-year run through hard work and smart, innovative, relentless marketing.

Pippin was not only one of the first Broadway shows to advertise on television but it also presented the first TV commercial that actually showed scenes from a Broadway show. That was an audacious gamble by the producers.

The Pippin commercial ran for 60 seconds and showed original star Ben Vereen and two other dancers in an instrumental dance sequence called "Glory." The commercial ended with the tagline, "You can see the other 119 minutes of Pippin live at the Imperial Theatre, without commercial interruption."

Because it's not a traditional or "formula" musical, Pippin has always been a show that had to seek its audience.

But now, 41 years later everything has changed.

This time, Pippin is one of the hottest tickets on Broadway. It's sold-out night after night, and with good reason. Pippin is that rare find: A sometimes disturbing musical of real substance that it also funny, whimsical, dazzling and hugely entertaining.

The story revolves around the son (Pippin) of the real-life, Middle Ages emperor Charlemange and his search for a life of meaning. Of course, it's only very loosely based on history.

The infinitely charming (but often clueless) Pippin wanders through his own story with the help of a cynical, manipulative coach/narrator (the Leading Player) and her dexterous chorus. Along the way he tries life as an erstwhile student; as a warrior in his father's army; as an unabashed hedonist, as pretender to the throne, as grandma's favorite and as a simple farmer.

Pippin fumbles and stumbles and takes longer than you might expect to find his way. And all of this unfolds in a circus atmosphere filled with mischief, magic and incredible acrobatics the likes of which Broadway has not seen since Cy Coleman's Barnum or Billy Rose's Jumbo. We guarantee you -- the feats of daring performed on the stage will astound you.

This American Repertory Theater (ART) production of Pippin directed by Diane Paulus has rightfully been called "a Pippin for the 21st century" and that's certainly evident in everything the production has to offer. Like Bob Fosse's other masterpiece, Chicago this is a show that was way ahead of its time. Now, updated and resonating with the cool irony and familiar ennui of 2013, the show has an instant appeal that spans generations and rouses audiences with an irresistible combination of form and substance.

You'll see flashes of Company (a young man's search for meaning), Cameot (a royal struggle) and even Monty Python (the ribald, bloody humor) in this Pippin. But this remains a thoroughly original concept beautifully realized.

As Pippin, Kyle Dean Massey demonstrates an enigmatic appeal that makes you root for him even when his character is exasperating. As the Leading Player, Clara Renee is commanding, feisty and always surprising. As the emperor, Terrance Mann is appropriately regal -- in a burlesque sort of way -- striking just the right tone. As Fastrada, Charlotte D'Amboise is delightfully cunning. And as Pippin's grandmother, Annie Potts stops the show with her rousing number No Time At All.

But the truth is that the entire cast is splendid and we urge you to see the show for this is the new gold standard.

So, in the end exactly what is Pippin in search of?

What does this young man want?

What is the musical all about?

Well, there's a helluva lot of razzle dazzle at work here -- we can tell you that.

But for the ultimate answer, you'll have to head on over top the Music Box Theater on Broadway.

Do it!

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