at the theatre: pippin

Screen Shot 2013-05-10 at 11.11.41 AMHell isn’t other people; it’s a revival of Pippin. Does that make me sound cynical? At the risk of drawing the ire of community theatre groups and teenagers everywhere, I can sum up in two small words the particular reason why this show hasn’t been revived on Broadway until now. And no, they are not “Bob” and “Fosse” – but more on that later. It’s crap. There, I said it: the elephant in the room. Despite an infectious easy-like-Sunday-morning score and high-concept theatrics, Pippin, at its core, is an amateurish bore. It isn’t so much a musical as an EST training run amok at Ye Olde Renaissance Faire; an exercise in self-actualization wrapped up inside the comforting embrace of that familiar trope: hey kids, lets put on a show! Would it originally have been produced without Fosse at the helm? I doubt it. But Fosse being Fosse – I told you we’d come back to him – did more than slap a bit of lipstick on a pig. He twisted the unforgivably earnest story of one young man’s (one very privileged man, I might add) quest for purpose into something tailor-made for a generation dabbling in consciousness raising, creating a surreal and disturbing metaphysical entertainment that seduced its audience with the director’s trademark hot and cool razzle-dazzle and a healthy dose of social commentary. (A confrontational style that would reach its apotheosis, I might add, three years later in Kander and Ebb’s Chicago.) Director Diane Paulus doesn’t seem so interested in the meta-theatrics of her production at The Music Box, except when it’s convenient – or unavoidable. But she does take the instructions of the title song quite literally: “we’ve got magic to do.”  The show-within-a-show conceit of this Pippin is not some mysterious white-gloved performance troupe, but a big top circus, providing Paulus (and a very game company) ample opportunity to distract and amuse us with feats of strength, illusion, and derring do.  Life as a circus is a tenuous metaphor; a wholly non-threatening 180-degree turn away from the original production, but that’s the beauty of shows like Pippin and its precursor, Godspell: they are skeletons on which a director can boldly stamp any theatrical vision. Paulus takes advantage of this without ever connecting the storytelling with the style and throws everything but the kitchen sink at the audience, served by an athletic and adventurous group of acrobats and a (mostly) top-drawer cast of leading players. Only Matthew James Sweet, as our titular hero, fails to impress. Terrence Mann as Pippin’s father, King Charlemagne, Charlotte D’Amboise as his conniving stepmother, Rachel Bay Jones as his love interest, and Andrea Martin as his show stopping grandmother are a quartet of perfect foils for all the navel gazing going on. It’s hard to banish thoughts of what Ben Vereen brought to bear as The Leading Player, but a devilishly sexy Patina Miller more than holds her own. I just wish Paulus had allowed her to show some of the menace in between all those jazz hands. Yet that’s what makes this production so unusual: for all the hoary shtick, it’s irony free. Instead of finding its corner of the sky, Pippin just wants to be loved.

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at the theatre: jesus christ superstar

The problem with Jesus Christ Superstar struck me at La Jolla Playhouse during intermission: like Ibsen’s Peer Gynt it’s meant to be heard and not necessarily seen. Originally created as a concept album, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s score is by and large pop-rock music. Fun to hear and even more fun to sing along with it’s not necessarily dramatic in the way music in the theater needs to be in order to hold the interest of the viewer and create a continuity of story. The contemporary pop-rock song by tradition dwells in a single emotion for three minutes; the theater song, when successful, takes character and listener on a journey which moves the story forward. In listening to an album we can make great jumps of time, space, and logic without a second thought – in the theater it falls upon the musical’s director to take over the role of our imagination and somehow make a cohesive omelette from so many scrambled eggs. For Des McAnuff, the Tony-winning director and former Artistic Director at La Jolla, that clarity comes mostly in the form of a “modern” conceptualization of mixed metaphors that somehow think a dinky news zipper and a handful of projections will somehow put the viewer in the mind of Tahir Square, or any of the social media-driven uprisings that grabbed our attention in 2011. Jesus as leader of a flash mob? I dont think so. The cast of amateurs doesn’t help matters. With the exception of Josh Young and Jeremy Kushnier as a morally conflicted Judas and Pontius Pilate, respectively, the cast acts as though they wandered in off a tour of Godspell. Then again, Judas and Pilate are the only characters given anything resembling a journey – each trying to do the right thing - so of course they come off a bit more successfully. Poor Jesus, he has nothing to do but look holy until his big 11 o’clock number with God – I mean Dad. In the title role Paul Nolan does an admirable job of staring vacantly into space. Let’s just say I left the theater humming – but vastly underwhelmed by the lack of cohesion. I expect it’ll always be so until a production comes along where the director’s imagination allows me to retain mine. In fact, the one and only successful Superstar I’ve seen was put on a few years ago with the singer Peaches. Talk about radical: it was a bare stage with just her and a piano, trusting the audience to fill in all the blanks. She sang the whole show on her own – just like I’ve been known to do in the shower or basement – before being joined onstage by the a handful of dancers to revel in the title number. It was perfection.

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