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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Menier Chocolate Factory   Winter 2011-2012

It has a couple of pleasant songs, dance tributes to Bob Fosse that capture some of his magic, and a concept and design that demonstrate how terribly terribly clever the director and designers are. But what was a not-very-good musical in 1972 turns out to be a not-very-good musical in 2011.

(Actually, although the first London production lasted less than two months, its Broadway predecessor was a hit, almost entirely on the basis of director-choreographer Fosse's production, which author Roger O. Hirson and songwriter Stephen Schwartz disliked; Schwartz complained that everyone spoke of it as Fosse's show, not his.) 

Pippin is nominally about the rebellious son of Charlemagne, but that premise is all but dropped halfway through, because the hero is really a 'Sixties flower child, a nave, innocent, idealistic youth searching for his place in life. 

Guided and goaded by a malevolent Leading Player, he tries war, politics, sensuality, religion and other paths before finally deciding, as Candide and Dorothy did before him, that the simple pleasures and challenges of home are best. (I'm not giving anything away. In 1972 there was no other place the plot could have gone.) 

For this revival director Mitch Sebastian and designer Timothy Bird imagine that all the characters are actually avatars in a video game being played by their offstage (but occasionally seen on screens) real selves.

This allows for some clever visual effects, as when real actors turn into video projections and back again, while each scene is labelled as a new and higher-stakes level of the game, but really adds nothing and, it could be argued, actually detracts by making everything 'just a game' and has nothing to do with the Age of Aquarius spirit of the show itself. 

Two central problems that plagued the original production and remain here are that Pippin himself is a bit of a wimp and a far less interesting character than the demonic Leading Player (it was Ben Vereen in that role who won the Tony in 1972, not John Rubinstein's Pippin), and that a plot line that goes from exploring exciting life choices to discovering the satisfactions of domesticity is inevitably going to lose energy along the way.

Director Sebastian has not conquered either of those flaws, and you are more likely to remember Matt Rawle's Player than Harry Hepple's Pippin, while all the best songs and dances come before the interval. 

Choreographing most of the show himself, Sebastian did import Fosse expert Chet Walker to coach the cast in Fosse style and stage the two best dances, the dark and sexy trio in the middle of the Glory scene and the later orgy sequence.

Matt Rawle pulls out all the stops in acting and singing the satanic Leading Player, though he is physically stolid and wooden in a role that wants to be fluid and catlike (Dances that originally belonged to his character have been given to someone else, and he noticeably leaves the stage whenever production numbers begin). 

Harry Hepple plays Pippin as he is written, pleasant but bland, and Carley Bawden isn't allowed to give his love interest the edge of strength and determination that would make her saving him believable. 

In showy one-big-scene roles Frances Ruffelle plays the wicked stepmother as Barbara Windsor for easy laughs, while Louise Gold and the director, by presenting the grandmother as a kookie bag lady, miss the whole point of her scene, which is that a sweet little old lady should surprise us by singing a bawdy life-affirming show-stopper. The song is there, but not the surprise, and it doesn't stop the show.

If anything about Pippin sticks in your mind a week later, it will be those five or six minutes of recreated Fosse dancing.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   Pippin - Menier 2011

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