sun 14/07/2024

Pippin, Menier Chocolate Factory | reviews, news & interviews

Pippin, Menier Chocolate Factory

Pippin, Menier Chocolate Factory

Stephen Schwartz musical risks self-immolation in high-concept revival

Harry Hepple's Pippin 'think(s) about the sun', with Carly Bawden beside himTristram Kenton

Should the people who made Tron - or for that matter James Cameron - ever decide to take on a Broadway musical, they owe themselves a trip to the Menier Chocolate Factory's ludicrous production of Pippin to find out how not to do it.

Just because this long-running New York entry was the first Broadway show to advertise on American TV nearly 40 years ago, that doesn't mean it also needs to be the first in my experience to be transformed into a video game so as to accommodate contemporary tastes. I like a high concept as much as the next person (rock on, Michael Sheen's Hamlet), but Mitch Sebastian's revival succeeds only in exposing the vapidity at the new-age heart of a piece incapable of withstanding the glare of a staging that twice nearly blinds its audience with a sudden surge of lights. To scant effect: many will be those, I suspect, who see right through to the tosh on view before them.

As at the Young Vic's Hamlet, we begin with a pre-show scenic tour that shows us Harry Hepple's anguished, fervently sung Pippin anxiously absorbed in his PC, a copy of Helter Skelter by his side. Is this some casually dressed trainee in the ways of murder? That might be more interesting than the character's actual quest to "live a life that is extraordinary", which comes off in performance as equal parts Candide and Company, the latter show echoed in a Bobby-like catharsis ("Stop, enough!") leading directly to the kind of hug-in one expects from a Spielberg film.

Pippin ensemble in full jazz-hand flowIn fact, Pippin is the son of the Emperor Charlemagne, his 9th-century picaresque told not via the commedia dell'arte conceit that marked out director/choreographer Bob Fosse's era-defining Broadway original but through a series of "journeys" from one level to the next, various CGI effects, internet hotties (female) and slinky, occasionally semi-clad chorus dancers to help him along the way. That last assemblage (pictured above, in full jazz-hand flow) includes yet another louche, androgynous Alan Cumming wannabe, as if to testify to the ongoing musical theatre influence of Broadway's most celebrated Scotsman in his signature role from another Fosse creation, Cabaret.

So what if the actual set amounts to a dreary study in sink-estate grey? The point of Timothy Bird's hyperactive, belligerently unappealing (and, one assumes, costly) production design is to dazzle us with the technology of the day - at last, a set that tweets! - except that the result never illuminates the material in the manner of the Menier's technically pioneering revival several years back of Sunday in the Park with George: a wonder on all fronts. This show, by contrast, spends inordinate amounts of time promising an "unparalleled" finish only to move toward a self-immolation sure to delight whatever cadre of pyromaniacs may be lingering in and around Southwark.

The ceaselessly trite, twee book is from Roger O Hirson, whose son David wrote the contrastingly extravagant study in linguistic excess, La bête. Tweaked here to include remarks like "taking the piss" and "what the fuck" (a good question, in context), the book plays second fiddle as it always has to Stephen Schwartz's score, which remains more than tuneful enough to satisfy those for whom this early effort from the composer of Wicked remains his ne plus ultra. One wonders, though, whether the lyrical emphasis on nature - "rivers belong where they can ramble", "think about the sun", and so on - isn't contradicted by the technology here required to put such poppy, post-Hair sentiments across.


Indeed, on this evidence, Pippin might be best served these days simply by a concert performance shorn of any governing conceit so that numbers like "With You" and "Morning Glow" can ring out as they did during the heyday of, say, the late John Denver, who was breaking through as a singer-songwriter at exactly the same time as Pippin was flourishing on Broadway, his music possessed of much of the same direct, unvarnished appeal. (Wicked buffs, meanwhile, can get a foretaste of the green-hued malcontent from that show when Pippin asks, Elphaba-like, "Why do I feel I don't fit in anywhere I go?")

The Menier cast in context gamely deliver what is asked of them, which in the case of Louise Gold's panto-like "No Time At All" consists of leading a glum-faced house in song (though she might want to reconsider an off-putting tendency to laugh most of the way through her lone number). Matt Rawle (pictured right) has inherited Ben Vereen's Tony-winning role as the Leading Player, an extended exercise in come-hither seduction that Rawle morphs into a variant on his sneering, sardonic Che from the recent revival of Evita. There's no allure here, just the gyrations of a snake-skinned smoothie going through the Fosse-esque paces required by Chet Walker's recreations of the original dances.

Playing Fastrada, Pippin's stepmother, Frances Ruffelle delivers her own nod to Fosse via vocal inflections that directly recall the legendary showman's onetime wife, and muse, Gwen Verdon, while Carly Bawden brings charm to the part of the young widow that offers our restless hero a home, bed and flaming quince pudding, though not necessarily in that order. Hepple, in turn, is so vocally assured that one is taken aback come the show's end to find that his seat at that entryway computer has been bequeathed to someone else. Does this mean we're in line for a Son of Pippin Game Boy? Please God, no.


Matt - I couldn't agree more; if found it tedious in the extreme - but my teenage kids adored it and went back for a second viewing. WTF, indeed.

Well, you've written the review I so much insisted should be written! How one can think of transplanting a concept such as 'video games' onto a work such as Pippin, without following through on so many levels, is utter madness. Lacking in imagination & execution of some half arsed 'concept'. It was woeful. Pippin is really a great show, if in the right hands. Funk it up by all means - but not at the expense of the original light that shines from the work. There's a reason it played 5 years on Broadway. Clearly economics is at play here - having a go at 'Big Shiny Modern Cutting Edge Musical'. We already have Wicked and GHOST for that matter...If you have a great concept based on the computer game epidemic,(a demographic that I'm sure loathes Musical Theatre) then write an original show! Such a disappointing evening in the theatre. PIPPIN deserves greater respect and very REAL innovation than some bastard 'high concept' that left all of us feeling "in abject despair" - all night! WTF?

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