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This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on June 28, 2000. All rights reserved.

Review: `Pippin’ at Paper Mill

E-mail: SimonSaltzman@princetoninfo.com

Pippin" has the distinction of being one of the

musicals of the 1970s that brought a whole new audience into the legitimate

theater. While there have always been musicals that were created to

entertain the entire family, "Pippin" developed a cult following

among teenagers that helped it become one of the long-running hits

of its decade — despite Stephen Schwartz’ uninspired score and

Roger O’Hirson’s ungainly script that inaccurately details the depressing

young life and misadventures of Pippin, the son of King Charlemagne,

during the year 780 A.D. More to the point, and by royal decree, "Pippin"

is no "Student Prince."

Of course, the show is not intended to be more than a series of vignettes

on the nature of fulfillment, as originally exemplified through the

tradition of commedia dell’arte buffoonery. Sex, war, and domestic

life are pondered and finally experienced by our naive, contemplative

young hero. All this as the show’s "Leading Player" (master

of ceremonies) comments on and manipulates the action.

At Paper Mill Playhouse, a major new production of the Broadway hit

is the summer attraction, "reconceived" by its creators, with

book by Roger O. Hirson and composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz, directed

by Robert Johanson, with new choreography by Rob Ashford.

Except for the collaborators’ attempt to reflect the rampant decadence

of that barbaric time in visually hip terms, this fantasy about Pippin’s

search for the meaning of life is hardly in the same league with Voltaire’s

(by way of Leonard Bernstein) "Candide." It may appear to

most adults that nothing of much interest is, in fact, going on in

780 A.D. But the post-pubescent population loved it once and may still

find something going on.

For adults, the charms of "Pippin" were not

in the faux historic lesson or the sophomoric philosophizing that

propel the episodic tale. Rather it was the cheekily sensual staging

by original director-choreographer Bob Fosse, and Ben Vereen’s magical

Tony-winning performance as the Leading Player. There was "Magic

to Do" and they did it, particularly in the opening black light

number that became the show’s signature piece. "Pippin" also

made history by being the first show to spend a million dollars for

TV commercials. Those spots are considered to have added three years

to "Pippin’s" five-year Broadway run.

Whether you perceive "Pippin" as a weird and humorless show

(which it is) or as a phantasmagoric adventure (which it also is),

the Paper Mill production cannot be called shy in its attempt to be

trendy, cool, and callous. To hell with the beguiling bawdiness of

the show’s original commedia dell’arte conceits. Johanson and Ashford,

of the current team, would like us to think they have taken "Pippin"

into the new millennium. At the very least, they have taken us for

a ride.

Paper Mill’s "Pippin" unveils the bowels of a presumably drug-drenched

downtown dance club where long-limbed women swivel their hips, lick

their lips, and undulate lasciviously, while groin-groping men do

variations on the frug. This 21st-century sink-hole for hedonistic

debauchery, as conceived by designer Michael Anania, is the kaleidoscope

through which we view the wanting, wondering, and wandering of the

8th-century prince.

If "Pippin" remains problematic, meaning relentlessly banal

in story and song, Johanson and Ashford have apparently done their

damnedest to get the show (as one song says) on the "Right Track"

for a new generation of teens. The performers, many of whom appear

to be in a constant state of masturbatory elation, are conceivably

putting their best forward. Fiendishly self-empowering Jim Newman,

as the lead player, loves himself the most, and demonstrates this

with his rock-star-like in-your-face performance. In the title role,

youthfully virile Jack Noseworthy is secure in his singing and dancing,

but remains clueless about the insecurities of the character he is

playing. Charlotte Rae, a Broadway veteran and TV character actress

("Car 54" and "The Facts of Life") plays Pippin’s

grandmother. Despite her not having a handle on the lyrics or the

key to her one song at the performance I saw, she alluded to the eighth

century more than anyone else.

As the tyrant Charlemagne, Ed Dixon sat on the throne and issued cruel

edicts with dynastic authority. Sara Gettelfinger plays the wicked

(you guessed it) stepmother and "ordinary housewife" as if

she were auditioning for the role Mama Rose in "Gypsy." She

sang the presumably humorous song, "Spread a Little Sunshine,"

as if she were auditioning for amateur night at Loew’s Pitkin. The

low-keyed sincerity of the lovely Natascia Diaz’s performance as the

widow who Pippin learns to love, was refreshing, yet seemed incongruous

with the general mocking tone of the show. There is a climax for those

who enjoy something in the nature of a second coming.

— Simon Saltzman

Pippin, Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn,

973-376-4343. $36 to $60. Performances to July 23.


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