NEW YORK — Things have come full circle for Stephen Schwartz. The composer/lyricist's first musical debuted on Broadway in October 1972. Four decades later, “Pippin” is a hit once again and won the 2013 Tony Award as Best Musical Revival.
While many Broadway musicals of the late 1960s and early 1970s enjoyed considerable popularity at the time, the most notable being “Hair” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” their rock scores labeled them as undeniable products of their era.
As their influence waned, many insiders believed they would be consigned to an ever-growing list of musicals that had few chances of being revived. Curiously, both returned to Broadway in the past few seasons.
“Pippin” would likely have suffered a similar fate had it not been for Diane Paulus' innovative staging. The current production makes considerable use of circus elements that transform the slender narrative into a joyous and visually compelling evening of theater.
The musical tells the story of King Charlemagne's son Pippin, a young prince who seeks meaning in his life, or as he proclaims, his “corner of the sky.” On his journey, Pippin experiences war, promiscuity, art and religion, but ultimately decides that the extraordinary life he envisioned for himself is not to be. Pippin finally finds happiness creating a life with a widow and her son.
The Leading Player, winningly portrayed by Patina Miller, a performer who won a Tony Award for her role, functions as convivial guide while providing witty commentary about the proceedings. She offers a new but equally valid take on the role originated by Ben Vereen in 1972.
The other standout from the original production was Irene Ryan, better known as the family matriarch on the television sitcom “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Andrea Martin ably fills Ryan's shoes and brings a vivid theatricality to her role as Pippin's “Granny.”
She stops the show with her inimitable version of “No Time at All,” a rousing number in which she invites the audience to sing along, “but just on the chorus,” she cautions. “The verses are mine.”
Terrence Mann brings crusty humor to his role as Charlemagne, while his real-life wife Charlotte d'Amboise is a scheming Fastrada, Pippin's stepmother who wants to see her son Lewis inherit the throne. Rachel Bay Jones' ditzy approach to Catherine lends considerable humor to the part.
British actor Matthew James Thomas makes a fine impression in the title role, particularly with his attractive and powerful voice, heard most notably in the lovely ballads “With You” and “Morning Glow,” as well as in the spirited “Corner of the Sky” and “Extraordinary.”
Outfitted with new orchestrations by Larry Hochman, “Pippin” takes Schwartz's familiar melodies and gives them a contemporary sensibility. Add a cast that possesses an abundance of vocal talents and the score sparkles anew.
Like Schwartz's “Godspell,” “Pippin” is the kind of show that lends itself to novel approaches. Gypsy Snider's circus elements and Paulus' remarkable stage pictures transform “Pippin” into an exciting production that should easily satisfy 21st-century audiences seeking a nontraditional theatrical experience.
— Rick Rogers