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Climb on Board: Pippin at the Music Box Theatre

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Climb on Board: <em>Pippin</em> at the Music Box Theatre

Ladies and gentlemen, don’t be a sucker. Step right up to Pippin, the greatest homegrown show of the season. It even has a puppy. This eye- and pelvis-poppin’ extravaganza seems willing to stop at nothing to make us ooh and aww. But miraculously, it never stoops. Instead, most of its nonstop thrills, chills, and threat of spills fly as high as the tip of its big-top tent. Yes, director Diane Paulus has traded out the original’s trope of an itinerant commedia dell’arte band of players for a troop of traveling cirque performers. And the dazzlingly executed change gives the Broadway revival, its first, a leg up facing down its biggest threat: the looming shadow of Bob Fosse.

The legendary director-choreographer won two Tonys for the first production and was roundly credited for its blockbuster success. Without his hands-on involvement, such as a later tour with Chita Rivera and returning star Ben Vereen, much of the magic was gone. Subsequent reimaginings in London (with a video-game concept) and in regional and community theaters have usually failed, giving the material a reputation as a relic tied to an era and a genius long since passed. But Paulus, of the recent Tony Award-winning revivals of Hair and The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, has come to the rescue. Her Pippin moves as fast and forcefully as if it were shot out of a cannon.

The new conceit allows Paulus to conjure her own staging ideas without looking like she’s competing with her predecessor. Throughout, she uses dazzling circus tricks to enliven moments that either hadn’t been given much focus before or had been told with Fosse’s inimitable language. Paulus is too smart to jettison completely what can’t be beat, so she has choreographer Chet Walker evoke, quote briefly, or lift (with due credit acknowledged in the program) Fosse’s signature sequences. But they seem fresh when seen within the context of socko routines devised by Gipsy Snider, a founding member of the circus theater company Les 7 doigts de la main.

It’s a fully integrated vision, with Paulus meshing the fly-through-the air acrobatic amazements with the greatest-of-ease sly slink of splayed hands and swiveling hips. Tumblers sing. Actors swing on the trapeze. Most everyone pulls at least double duty and, even when balancing precariously on a pyramid of slip-sliding cylinders, they look like they’re having the time of their lives. The feeling’s contagious.

The joyous warmth, which Paulus also emphasized in Hair and Porgy and Bess, jibes well with the earnest side of book writer Roger O. Hirson and composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz’s material. While in college, the latter had written a musical called Pippin, Pippin about the rebellion of King Charlemagne’s son against his warrior father. Soon after graduation, as a follow-up to his smash hit Godspell, he and Hirson developed an entirely revamped Pippin as an allegory of a young man’s search for a greater purpose, which they felt had a special resonance for the Vietnam era. Paulus honors the sincerity of Pippin’s search, while keeping the wit about it.

Her way into the material stands in direct contrast to Fosse. He, not surprisingly, identified most with the Dionysian side of Pippin’s quest. To personify the seductive pull of sex, war, and other kinetic diversions, he created the Leading Player out of several smaller roles and made it as much the focus as the title character. He wrested control from Schwartz, whom he famously banned from rehearsal, and stamped out even the scent of any sentiment. It seems Fosse saw the mephistophelean Leading Player leading pure Pippin down the garden path as the story of his life. And anyone who’s seen Chicago, which he co-wrote, or his film version of Cabaret knows which side gets his juices going.

Paulus shifts that dynamic in one fell swoop. She opens the show with a shadow of her own devising, the silhouette of a reimagined Leading Player, a woman (the phenomenally talented Patina Miller). Now a ringmaster, she’s a brash presence whose primary connection is with us as she makes sure the astonishments keep coming. The primal pull between the character and Pippin (Matthew James Thomas, rocking a boy-band haircut, tender tenor, and sweet disposition) is lost, but it gives him space to develop relationships elsewhere and it enables many of the others performers to shine.

Charlemagne, played by a funny and formidable Terrence Mann, now has a reasonably complicated paternal hold over Pippin, whose rebellion, violence, and retraction seem less abstract than in the original. Charlemagne, like the others, has a circus act that adds flash to his character and fleshes out his relationships. He throws knives at his new queen, Fastrada (a game Charlotte D’Amboise), which tells you all you need to know about their marriage.

Charlemagne’s mother, Berthe (the indelible Andrea Martin), gets the first grin out of Pippin. Martin could melt a stone, which Thomas often seems to be imitating until this scene. It seems part of Paulus’s strategy to build momentum into a piece that usually loses steam before the end, so she has Pippin warm up ever so gradually. Martin herself heats up the entire theater during the climactic circus of her big number, “No Time at All.” Until this point, the production’s been consistently exhilarating but often busy. Here it evokes awe through a sweet simplicity that demonstrates how Berthe rises above the constraints of age. Martin has already won a Tony award by being funny, and she may very well win a second by being altogether fetching.

Thomas and Miller do finally connect during the appropriately named showstopper “On the Right Track” at the top of the second act. Miller’s already impressed by proving to be a true triple threat, performing the Fosse moves with precision, but I wish she could let go a bit. Perhaps Paulus believes that wouldn’t be the right move for a controlling ringmaster, but it limits the actress’s performance. Thomas on the other hand gets to cut loose with surprisingly accomplished dance moves. He’s got the face of an anime hero: jet black hair, round light blue eyes, and an often blank expression. When he smiles, though, Thomas animates the entire theater.

He does that more often when Pippin gets smitten by the widow Catherine (Rachel Bay Jones, the charming find of the season). While the first act is chock a block with blockbuster numbers, this section is usually where productions come a cropper. With fewer opportunities for the Leading Player to rev things up, even Fosse’s ingenuity flagged. In the production’s most welcome turnabout, this lower key sequence is where Paulus’s touch bears its best fruit.

She prepares us for Catherine’s importance to the story by weaving in Jones throughout as a kind but daffy clown and then invests the relationship between Pippin, Catherine, and her young son, Theo, with genuine emotion and gentle invention. When that adorable puppy, Porridge the terrier, makes his appearance festooned with a bow, it’s a wink at Pippin’s own over-the-top desire to draw Theo out of a funk. And it’s a nod toward Pippin’s slow, unsteady move beyond the me-me-me search for self-satisfaction.

Paulus finds subtle ways to bolster the appeal of familial love in the production.  Porridge really is Thomas’s dog. Off stage, Mann is married to his on-stage wife, D’Amboise. In marked contrast, Fosse’s version found more to parody than support in the conventional move toward romance and responsibility. He crafted a finale in which the Leading Player eggs Pippin on to perform an unforgettable finale, in which he’ll set himself on fire. It’s death by show business, the yin to the yang of traditional family structures that Fosse explored more fully a few years later in his film autobiography a clef All That Jazz.

In the end, when Pippin rejects the Leading Player for a life with Catherine and Theo, Fosse had her ask, “How do you feel?” Pippin answered, “Trapped, which isn’t too bad for the end of a musical comedy. Ta da!” Those lines have been presto-changeo-ed out of Paulus’s production, where settling down isn’t seen as settling. But it also isn’t problem-free. There’s a new coda that accepts the perpetual pull of these allegedly greatest shows on Earth. And this canny revival is another example. Its opening line is “Join us,” and if at the end Miller’s Leading Player asked me to join the company, I wouldn’t hesitate to climb on board. I’ll have to settle for attending as often as possible.

Pippin is running at the Music Box Theatre. For tickets, click here.