A five-star, three-ring pip of a Pippin bowed April 25 at the Music Box and officially brought the 2012-13 Broadway season to a end with a buoyant, joyful bounce.
The unseen ringmistress of the evening was the innovative Diane Paulus, artistic director of Cambridge's American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.), who tends to win Best Revival Tony Awards on Broadway for rethinking classic American musicals—Hair and Porgy and Bess, to date. Now comes her new contender, Pippin, Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson's Fossefied 1972 fantasy about Charlemagne's first born, who yearns for the simple life and finds it in the second act.
Paulus has plenty of magic to do for A.R.T.'s sake, and her chief collaborator in revisualizing the show is Gypsy Snider, herself an artistic director of a bouncy band of Montreal acrobats named Les 7 doigts. These magnificent seven have subtly infiltrated the ranks of the Broadway brand of gypsies and featured players—and voila! The late Bob Fosse's "Show time!" has, like magic, turned into "Circus time."
"Bob loved circuses, and he loved clowns," recalled Chet Walker, who was an 18-year-old peasant member of the original show 40 years ago and has now stepped up to move the new company through much the same Fosse moves. "In fact, if you look at our first original logo that Tony Walton did, it's made of acrobats and clowns."
Paulus, it turns out, is not so inventive that she can't sometimes think inside the box as well, and she believed it essential her revival have that unforgettable Fosse feel.
"Looking at what it is that we started with and what we ended with is amazing to me because it is kind of seamless," admitted Walker. "I mean, I don't think we know where one thing begins and the other thing ends—although we do keep the 'Manson Trio' intact. When you look at the other things we did, there are Fossisms, there are Walkerism, there are Gypsy Sniderisms, there are Diane Paulusisms."
Creating a creditable mashup of the above, Paulus said, was her most daunting chore: "The layers and the details on the show were so complicated in integrating the Fosse and the acrobatics, but that was the joy of it as well—the merging of those two worlds, the circus and the Fosse. I loved working with this talented cast who were so determined to be brilliant and extraordinary. That was the theme for the show and the theme for this cast. It was a challenge but a joy, total joy."
The vociferous response Pippin has been receiving is on a par with those that greeted her Hair and The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess—a cheery echo not lost on Paulus. "It has made me very happy," she said. "You know, when you make something out of so much love, you're just thrilled when people respond and give that love back."
The director and the choreographer made these barely audible remarks at the after-party held at Slate, a small, black-box disco on West 21st.
Having shucked her habit from Sister Act, Patina Miller is no flying nun here, but she is airborne a lot, traveling mostly by trapeze as Leading Player, who narrates the story and, in the guise of best bud, manipulates Pippin through his key, life-learning experiences. Whenever an unwelcomed love interest lifts her pretty head—as in the specific case of Rachel Bay Jones' Catherine, a widow with child, who lures Pippin away from the colorful commotion of court life into the mundane mire of everyday bucolic blandness—Miller spews and hisses like The Stage Manager From Hell.
"It's a demanding role and a big role," Miller allowed, "but you know what? I've been working hard and getting my stamina up, and I'm really, really proud of this because it's my baby. I wanted to take this role and find out who this character really was."
And who did she finally come up with? "I found a person with a passion, a big heart—somebody who wants to bring all that out of you. The Leading Player to Pippin is his cheerleader. She wants him to experience life. She wants him to experience all these things. Even if it's scary, she wants him to do these things."
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A Brit by birth (although you'll not catch him sounding like one on stage), Matthew James Thomas almost makes his Broadway debut in the awesomely tasking title role—"almost" because he comes to Pippin from Wednesday and Saturday afternoon flights as the alternate Spider-Man. "I've traded two shows a week there for eight shows a week here," he said. He actually missed flying, too: "Flying never gets boring, but Pippin keeps me pretty busy. Being surrounded by these people is a daily, exciting journey, and it just continues—the madness continues."
He's not even on stage for his favorite moment—the pure Fosse extant of the "Mansion Trio," which comes out of nowhere during the "Glory" passage of the show. Inevitably, it brings audience-recognition applause. (A minute of it constituted the first Broadway advertisement ever to run on television.)
"I actually love being backstage for 'Glory' because I think the score is just incredible," Thomas remarked. "Larry Hochman, the orchestrator, and Stephen Schwartz—I like the work they've done of this score—modernize it but keep it completely true to what it was. I also have to say the incredible musicians just make this score alive in a way that I definitely didn't feel with the first version of the show. And I'm happy to say that because I feel like what's happening musically in this show is just so thrilling. To ride on them on the stage is an incredible privilege."
Making his unqualified and unconditional Broadway bow is his pooch, Porridge, who paddles on stage and, quickly, off, representing trained dog acts in the circus.
Also Broadway-debuting in the show are Andrew Cekala as Pippin's stepson, Theo, and Erik Altemus as Pippin's rivaling stepbrother. "I thought I'd be more nervous than I was," Altemus happily reported. "It was actually nice to enjoy and take it in."
Both newbies are featured actors blending in with the acrobats. "I wish to be an acrobat sometimes," Altemus admitted. "I'm in awe of what they do, and I've tried my best to take what I can from them, and, hopefully, I will continue to do that."
Cekala has the extra edge of performing a scene that was never done before on Broadway—"the Schwartz ending," which Fosse cut from the original production.
His mom in the show, Rachel Bay Jones, plays her part with the comic vocal curlicue of Carol Kane. "I love the fact that Catherine is a kind of mess," she said. "She shows up late. She bumbles things—but she ultimately, in her outsider role, defines the heart of the play—the thing that all of us can relate to. She's so imperfect, and, of course, so am I—so I get to bring all of my crazy imperfections into her world."
And if you listen closely, you may hear a hint of Gwen Verdon's voice in Charlotte d'Amboise's Fastrada, Pippin's sex-happy stepmon (clearly a Verdon kind of role, just too small for a star of her stature). Notably, d'Amboise makes you forget the brevity of the part with her dynamic razzle-dazzle dance, "Spread a Little Sunshine."
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Terrence Mann, d'Amboise's husband in the play and in life, also pushes back the boundaries of a small, if kingly, part: Charlemagne. "The script is what it is, and he's on stage so little time. He's a crazy megalomaniac—a war person, but he loves his son, which gets the role a little more depth than-–I dunno, he's not Javert, is he?"
The character does give him a chance to play his infrequent funny card. "I don't ever get a chance to do that broad stuff—so thank God for Diane Paulus letting me do something that was sexy and dangerous and funny all at the same time."
Don't be a bit surprised if Andrea Martin doesn't strut off with this year's Tony for Featured Actress in a Musical. It's the kind of thing for which she can't be denied.
As Pippin's grandmother, this superb comedienne (66 playing 67) is allotted only one big scene, but it comes with a ready-made showstopper, "No Time at All," and director Paulus has thrown everything at it to make it soar—beach balls, follow-the-bouncing-ball singalong, even swimwear. Midway through, Martin stashes the granny garb, strips to a one-piece sequin-suit and levitates into some intricate trapeze tricks. It knocks the audience out. All rise in thunderous applause.
"I have a great partner for that, Yannick Thomas," Martin said. "He takes care of me beautifully. It gives me confidence to act like I'm doing the most natural thing ever."
First among the first-nighters was Ben Vereen, the original Tony-winning Leading Player, now flashily decked out in a black suit, white scarf, top hat and tennies. He sent his compliments backstage to Miller, but the two never connected physically.
The opening-night crowd ran a gamut from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (Sally Ann Howes) to Chatty Chatty Bang Bang (Seth Rudetsky). In between: Tovah Feldshuh, top cop Ray Kelly (his second Broadway opening in a row), "Smash"ing couple Debra Messing and Will Chase, the Canadian-Godspell connection: Victor Garber and Martin Short (the latter, Martin's favorite in-law), Steve Kazee (returning to his Once block for the first time since he left his Tony-winning part: "It's very emotional being this close to that show"), Ricky Martin with sunglasses and gleaming teeth and needing nothing more, Jane Krakowski (whose aerial antics in Nine copped a Tony), Next to Normal's Jennifer Damiano, Doubt Tony winner Adriene Lenox, Spider-Man well-wisher Brett Thielle, Equus stud Lorenzo Pisoni (who hails from the acrobatic arts), Marco Zunino, tall Tommy Tune, songwriters Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman (playing hooky from their London Chocolate Factory, which opens June 25, to catch the Broadway openings of a pair of primal pals), producer John Gore, director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw and Tarzan's Jenn Gambatese (bound next month for Venice—not Italy, just The Public).