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Familiarity breeds magic in ‘Pippin’

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MILLER AND THOMAS. Portray the Leading Player and the restless prince, respectively. Photo by Joan Marcus

“Join us, come and waste an hour or two,” the Leading Player (played by Patina Miller) sings the opening strains of “Magic to Do” to the spellbound audience as she rips through the fourth wall with a menacing grin. Don’t let Miller’s friendly gesture fool you, however: “Pippin’s” Tony-winning Broadway revival (at the Music Box Theatre) isn’t the harmless and preternaturally perky Stephen Schwartz musical you’re familiar with.

You only need to see the new production’s stunning opening sequence—in which the Leading Player introduces the audience to a mysterious troupe of players who set out to perform a coming-of-age play about young Prince Pippin’s (Matthew James Thomas of “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark”) search for purpose and meaning—to realize that the next couple of hours won’t be wasted on glib and shallow niceties.

With its fresh sheen, “Pippin” coherently fuses dazzling musical-theater pomp and thrilling feats of derring-do as it plays out its protagonist’s dilemma: He doesn’t get much help from a busy father, King Charles (Terrence Mann), who doesn’t know how to deal with his dreamer son, or a manipulative stepmother, Queen Fastrada (Charlotte d’Amboise), who wants her self-absorbed son, Lewis (Erik Altemus), to take over her gullible husband’s throne.

Quest

In his quest for his “corner of the sky,” the restless prince becomes more estranged from his family, especially after he contradicts his father’s war policies. He then flees to the countryside estate of his exiled grandmother, Berthe (Andrea Martin)—who encourages him “to start livin’.”

Pippin’s ascent to the throne has contrasting repercussions. It may have caused the demise of his tyrannical father, but it has also led him to his fateful meeting with widow Catherine (Rachel Bay Jones) and her son, Theo. Will their love and affection be the storybook ending he’s always craved for?

The musical’s success is a case of familiarity breeding magic. The tunes are hum-worthy and catchy as heck, so don’t be surprised to hear your seatmates singing along with the actors when a familiar tune is performed onstage—from “Corner of the Sky” and “Spread A Little Sunshine” to “Morning Glow” and “With You”—an “uncontainable” consequence that the production occasionally incorporates into the show, with Martin conducting, as lyrics flash onscreen!

Director Diana Paulus’ take on “Pippin”—which returns to Broadway after 41 years—is hard-edged, unpredictable, exuberant and death-defying, with stunts that’ll drive viewers to the edge of their seats!

Circus stunts

The musical’s free-flowing melodies may not be all that hard to sing, but try performing them as you execute choreographer Chet Walker’s Fosse-style combinations and Gypsy Snider’s big-top circus stunts. —Your jaw will drop as the impossibly fit and muscular lead actors hold their own beside the acrobats and gymnasts in the troupe!

In fact, 66-year-old Martin—who, like Miller, won a Tony last month for her performance—sings a portion of granny Berthe’s “No Time At All” as she scales the heights, swings in the air, and literally hangs by her toes—upside down!

Miller (“Sister Act”) told Playbill’s Frank DiLella, “I wasn’t familiar with ‘Pippin’ prior to signing on. But, I knew what kind of director Paulus was—so, I couldn’t just wing it!”

The actress felt the pressure of taking over from Ben Vereen, the original Leading Player, and was “scared out of my wits” during the show’s pre-Broadway run-up in Massachusetts. To get herself up to speed, she trained with Snider and Walker, a Fosse protégé who was part of the original 1972 production.

Miller shares, “As a performer, you want to hit every moment hard. But, Fosse’s style is very contained—it’s about making it look like a walk in the park. When there’s a jolt in the movement, it’s on purpose!”


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