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