Saturday, December 31, 2011

I suspect that the continued success of WICKED in the West End has played it's part in the Menier Chocolate Factory staging of Stephen Schwartz' 1972 musical PIPPIN. The Menier has now an established success with reviving musicals that deserve being revisited in different production styles from their originals - A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, SWEET CHARITY, LA CAGE AUX FOLLES and most famously of all SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE. Timothy Bird's video-based production design, which made SUNDAY such a gloriously visual experience, features again in this production but sadly the effect is not as successful in the hands of director Mitch Sebastian.

PIPPIN was first seen on Broadway in 1972 in an acclaimed production directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse. It was Fosse's golden year which also saw the release of his iconic screen version of CABARET and within a year he became the only person to win the Best Director Academy Award, Best Director Tony Award and Best Director Emmy Award (for the tv special LIZA WITH A Z).

John Rubenstein played Pippin, the questioning, drop-out son of Emperor Charlemagne, whose CANDIDE-like journey through his life was told by a 70s' style Comedia dell'Arte troupe of strolling players and narrated by the charismatic Leading Player which provided a perfect vehicle (and Tony Award) for the wonderful Ben Vereen.

The cast also included
BEVERLY HILLBILLIES star Irene Ryan as Pippin's grandmother Berthe, Leland Palmer as Pippin's scheming stepmother Fastrada, Jill Clayburgh as the widow Catherine - a role understudied by the young Ann Reinking who was also in the chorus, in only her third Broadway role.

The show's pop/rock score - released on Motown of all labels - and Fosse's signature style caught the time's anti-establishment vibe and the show ran for a remarkable five years.

In London it ran a mere 85 performances when Fosse brought it to the Her Majesty's Theatre in 1973 despite a great cast of Paul Jones (Pippin), Elisabeth Welch (Berthe), Diane Langton (Fastrada) and Patricia Hodge (Catherine).

I saw the show when it was revived at the Bridewell Theatre in 1996 by Mitch Sebastian which starred David Burt, Michael Jibson, Mazz Murray and Juliette Caton which highlighted the troublesome book by Roger O. Hirson which strives for a Brechtian approach to telling Pippin's story but without a director like Fosse's ultra-theatrical style, it looks pretty threadbare.

So Mitch Sebastian is having another crack at it at the Menier, only now he has rehauled the show to give it the appearance of a computer game which, while intriguing to watch, can do nothing to hide the limited range of the book - indeed by the end of it it the show can't help but collapse under the weight of the concept.
Retaining some of Fosse's original choreography only highlights the slight desperation of other part's of the concept - and sadly that's all it remains: a concept, not a thought through production. The show's structure of Pippin going through various different adventures can certainly lend themselves to the idea of going through computer game levels but it only serves to make the piece darker (in all ways) than it needs to be - the Leading Player's final twist to Pippin's tale comes as no surprise as we are now used to Sebastian's heavy-hand.

There are hidden gems lurking within the production however. Harry Hepple is an engaging Pippin with a fine singing voice, a charming playing style and it made you wish he was in a better production. Carly Bawden was a delight as Catherine, bringing a freshness to the show's jadedness.Ian Kelsey was anonymous as Charlemagne and Matt Rawle over-played the Leading Player to such an extent that he was practically unwatchable by the end. However Frances Ruffelle made the most of the scheming Fastrada and, in the performance of the show, Louise Gold made Berthe's solo number "Time To Start Living" into a real wake-up number, performing it in a Gracie Fields style. I have always had a fondness for Schwartz's score and the original Broadway score is a much-played cd - the songs just about came through unscathed in this production but the score's Broadway roots constantly strained against Sebastian's TRON effects.

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