Pippin revival vaults onto the Golden Gate stage
Surely one of the wackiest ideas for a musical is to base it on the 8th century French monarch Charlemagne’s failure of a hunchbacked son. (I can think of only one wackier: Sweeney Todd.) Not that a person with a hunchback can’t be a compelling protagonist (think Victor Hugo), and not that a musical set in the Dark Ages can’t earn big bucks, even if the show is a dog (think Camelot). Still, tossing hundreds of thousands into 1972’s Pippin, which does indeed center on Charlemagne’s failure of a hunchbacked son, must have given its investors pause. Maybe the commitment of songwriter Howard Schwartz, choreographer Bob Fosse, and star Ben Vereen persuaded them to take the plunge.
In any case, Pippin became a big hit, running on Broadway for years. Gussied up, it returned there in 2013 to pick up a “Best Revival” Tony Award. That show’s roadshow production just opened in San Francisco.
If you go, you may think you’ve wandered into one of those Cirque du Soleil productions with a provocative name (Pippilooza?), because the set is a vast circus tent in which a colorfully bedizened troupe tumbles and soars, shinnies up ropes and poles, tosses fire sticks, stacks themselves to the ceiling, and wriggles in flashy hula-hoop gyrations. Whereas the original dance-driven Pippin, set among strolling players, was psychologically darker, the new one is a brash “circus” Pippin, set among acrobats and clowns with an agenda for their young acolyte. What is that agenda? It’s murky, but the meaning of their existence seems to depend on manipulating his life toward a climax they promise us, the audience at the show, that we’ll remember “the rest of our lives.”
Though the actual Pippin was likely a hunchback, the one in the musical isn’t, and we don’t have to guess why–its protagonist needs to be fit and limber, needs to be able to tumble and dance, and as played by Matthew James Thomas, he fills the bill. Boyishly earnest, Pippin insists he wants his life to mean something and, manipulated by a circus troupe led by a slyboots played with hip-thrusting vigor by Sasha Allen, he sets off to do just that, by soldiering, by assassinating his father, by loving a young widow.
The musical has its moments, especially a turn by Lucie Arnaz as Pippin’s grandmother that deserved all the cheers it earned. It also features watchable homages to Bob Fosse’s original angular choreography and some spectacular circus moments. But the story is shallow and episodic, with no strong through-line. Pippin is a pretty dull protagonist, so you may find yourself wondering why all the bother about him. This production gussies up his halting adventures with busy, noisy razzmatazz, but though the opening night audience seemed to eat it up, I found myself longing for wit and grace, for something to give meaning to the two hours of my life that I was spending in the theater.
One irrelevant note. In researching the history of the story, I discovered that one of the main sources for the life of Pippin the Hunchback is the journal of Notker the Stammerer who lived during the reign of Charles the Fat.
You can’t make stuff like this up.
Directed by Diane Paulus, with circus creations by Gypsy Snider, Pippin is now at the Golden Gate Theatre. The holiday show, Elf, joins the SHN roster at the Curran Theatre in December. The “Best Musical” Tony Award winner, Kinky Boots, opens at the Orpheum in December, too. For tickets/information call 888-746-1799 or visit shn.com.