In the 1970s, America was introduced to composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz with a one-two punch: Pippin and Godspell. Both shows ambitiously tackled widely different historical subjects – Charlemagne and the French Middle Ages in one, the teachings of Jesus in the other. Already in place, though, were signature Schwartzian devices, including a gently rock-inflected musical style, theatricality steeped in magic and vaudeville, and a sense that the target audience was young.
Indeed, I was a high school and college student in those years, and my fellow theater kids were besotted with Schwartz. Pippin’s “Corner of the Sky” was the audition song of the moment, recorded by the likes of Diana Ross and the Jackson 5. But I wondered how gracefully the almost quaint 1970s vision of finding personal fulfillment would age. Would Pippin have a future? (So sue me – I wondered the same thing about the Jackson 5.)
Fast-forward 25 years, and Stephen Schwartz is back… with a little show called Wicked. I think of Wicked as sort of Schwartz 2.0 – bigger, brassier, more traditionally Broadway.
The first Broadway Pippin was a hit; Wicked is a phenomenon – and it kindled an across-the-board revival of interest in all things Stephen Schwartz. But how could the older show be brought back to life? In director Diane Paulus’s production the answer is – with a bang.
This is Pippin reimagined as a three-ring circus – well, perhaps here it’s more like one ring, but trust me, there are no visibile economies in the lavish tour now at the Academy. It’s visually dazzling, and filled with acrobatic ooohs and aaahs.
But if the production is generally the headline – Pippin is still mostly about the cast. Here, they are a strong ensemble across the board – but two superb Broadway veterans really walk away with the show.
Nearly 45 years ago, John Rubinstein originated the title role – now he’s back as the father, his charisma undiminished, filling every moment with energy and panache that would be the envy of any young actor. Adrienne Barbeau (yes, Maude’s daughter) as Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother(!), sings and acts beautifully and looks like a million bucks – her show-stopping number is an astonishing feat in turning back the clock. (I wonder how many people spend intermission Googling Barbeau’s age on the cellphones? I did – unbelievably, she’s 70.)
I kept worrying that Paulus’s high-concept production would eventually overwhelm Pippin, but it doesn’t – in fact, the finale packs a punch I’ve never seen before. Still, I may not be the only cranky old hippie holdout who slightly missed the fragile, DIY charm of the original show.
But we oldsters need to suck it up – go see Pippin, and enjoy it. It’s time the ‘70s made way for 2016.
Pippin runs through February 28. For more information, visit Broadway at the Academy’s website.