A recent college grad finds himself back home, careerless and directionless. His rich father, interfering stepmother, and doting grandmother suggest various professions and pursuits, but he can’t stick with anything for long. Left to his own devices, he sleeps around and complains in language cribbed from a freshman philosophy survey that may have included some Nietzsche. Another tale of trust-fund anomie? More or less. But did I mention that our hero sings, dances, and occasionally launches himself from considerable heights into the waiting arms of chorus members?
When it opened in 1972, Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin, now revived by director Diane Paulus at Broadway’s Music Box Theatre, borrowed the tale of a medieval French also-ran and altered it to serve Me Generation disaffection. Here, Paulus offers a jazzed-up millennial version, apparently compensating for Roger O. Hirson’s dopey book. She offsets any script weaknesses with sheer spectacle, transforming the theater into a one-ring big top and marrying the traditional Bob Fosse choreography (realized by Chet Walker) with circus stunts devised by Gypsy Snider and performed by an ace seven-member troupe.
Amid all this action, Pippin (the fresh-faced Matthew James Thomas) sometimes seems an also-ran in the show that bears his name. Just when you might concentrate on his plight, there’s another bit of illusion or stunning acrobatics to focus your attention elsewhere. This isn’t always a bad thing–Pippin’s problems can come off as entitled whining–but it doesn’t make the most of Thomas’s boyish charm and appealing voice. (Neither does his first-act outfit, a lavender chenille sweater.)
However, Patina Miller, impossibly sleek and muscled in her skintight ringmaster garb, seems at home among the death-defying acts, and Rachel Bay Jones smartly plays against the extravaganza as a sweetly grounded Catherine, Pippin’s love interest. Terence Mann, as Pippin’s royal pa, goes far beyond the actorly call of duty, knife-throwing and unicycling his way through his scenes. But the real star is Andrea Martin as Pippin’s hedonistic grandma. To reveal too much about her “No Time at All” turn would be churlish, but it earned an enthusiastic ovation and offered surprise and delight that the second act couldn’t match. Also, we should all be so flexible at 66.
Paulus’s approach gives short shrift to Schwartz’s pop ballads like “Corner of the Sky” and “Morning Glow.” Just try to focus on melody when faced with so much spandex-clad, somersaulting flesh. And sometimes the excess can veer toward embarrassing, as in a cluttered barnyard scene. The greatest show on earth? Not quite. But until elephants, giant cats, and human cannons make a home on Broadway, it’s as close to a night at the circus as you’re likely to find.