I have just returned from seeing the new Pippin revival with my friend Erick, and I am just amazed at the amount of talent on display on the Imperial stage tonight. Of course, Broadway maintains a high standard generally, but I can think of plenty of shows--Dracula was one, but there have been others--where through casting or direction the talent was unimpressive. And there are other shows where certain actors truly held the stage but the others were no more than functional. But in Diane Paulus' Pippin, the leads and ensemble all together are almost insanely spectacular in everything they do--acrobatics, dancing, acting, or simply having the stage presence that thrills and tantalizes. To pick just one example, in the original production, Fastrada's solo was a minor event, just a song and dance rather like Gwen Verdon's establishing number in Damn Yankees, "A Little Brains, a Little Talent," if less characterologically evolved. But here, Charlotte d'Amboise got a Big Number out of it, partly because the staging utilized (with a now-you-see-them-now-you-don't entrance-and-exit box) more of the magic-cum-craziness that informs this staging from first to last, but also because she just knows how to take the stage and make it hers. The whole town is already talking about Andrea Martin's number, so I won't dwell on it here--but, really, everything in this production makes use of this extraordinary cast. The famous cliche about movies is that the camera loves certain stars. Here, the auditorium loves the players; they come alive as few ensembles do.
There are many changes in emphasis from the Bob Fosse original--of emphasis, not of kind. It's still the Pippin we remember. Yet isn't the episodic storyline focused as never before? The book seemed to plod once on a time; now it's intent, edging Pippin along on his strange journey to, really, nowhere. Few musicals lack, as this one does, a macguffin--Alfred Hitchcock's term for the "thing" that drives the plot. Dorothy needs to return to Kansas, or Ninotchka needs to laugh. It's difficult to keep an audience mesmerized without a kick in the plot. Yet this Pippin does exactly that, because, even more than in the Fosse original, the show is about how the work is presented rather than about what the story is about.
Yes, it's another Concept Musical, as the actors address the audience or allude to the fact that, after all, they're in a show, not in real life. Andrea Martin warns us, during her singalong, that we can come in during the chorus but she gets to solo on the verses. Then, after a chorus, just before she sings again, she cries, quite tartly--because some people never pay attention--"Verse!" Meaning: lay out, guys, it's my personal space here. At the end, Patina Miller, the new Commere, gets so irritated at Pippin's refusal to play his role in her way that she strikes much of the set, pushes the players out, and shuts up the pit. No more show! It's almost as if the Concept has overwhelmed the Musical. And there's a new ending now, which closes off the narrative cyclically, a wonderful touch.
But where do they find the talent? How tough is it to get cast on Broadway, or in Boston, where the show originated? Matthew James Thomas is tall, handsome, fit, a fine actor, a marvelous singer, a superb dancer (when they let him, which is really only for a few moments in Act Two), and splendid company. How can one fellow pull all of that together? Many years ago, I played for auditions for shows, from Broadway to regional productions, and I was always amazed at how many of the auditioners were perfectly ready to play the parts they were up for. How can they find talent so wholly evolved? This must be why we go to the theatre: to see who the folk are who can do what we can't.