Boston, Part I: “Pippin”

pippin American Repertory Theater ART Diane Paulus Matthew James Thomas

Theater tourism took me to Boston recently. Did Beantown deliver? Listen my children and you shall hear…
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It’s gotta be where its spirit can run free, indeed: Over at the American Repertory TheaterDiane Paulus has reimagined the classic Pippin as circus fare performed by a troupe of acrobats and storytellers. Cue the bedazzled leotards! Setting this groovy, 70s musical thusly is an innovation—apparently no such directive exists in the original Stephen Schwartz/Roger O. Hirson material. (Yes, I did just out myself as a Pippin virgin.)

But Paulus’s concept feels so inevitable, so part and parcel of this furiously entertaining coming-of-age tale, that it’s hard to imagine the show any other way. After all, the material (presentational, narrated, whimsical) practically screams “kooky framing device!” Also, hiring real acrobats (Paulus has drafted members of the Québécois company Les 7 Doigts de la Main) lends the show a kind of storytelling WD-40. Whenever you think, wait–what? (and let’s be real, Pippin‘s dramaturgy can be a bit zany), those sexy tumblers slink onstage and lube the proceedings into a more abstract, magical light; their glow makes the storytelling sins seem less mortal. 

Sins aside, when the show works, it works. Andrea Martin is gloriously joyous (and dizzying) in “No Time at All.” Patina Miller delivers chill after chill in the opening number, “Magic to Do.” And Matthew James Thomas enshrines “Morning Glow” in the pantheon of great act 1 kickers. Time and time again, you think, “why aren’t all musicals this fun? this magical?”

For above all, this Pippin is thrillingly, heart-poundingly magical. The levitating bodies, the knife throwing, the impossible feats of balance—Paulus has taken the lyric “magic to do” literally, her stagecraft underscoring the transporting, fantastic, musical theater-ness of everything. All tuners aspire to this alchemy, but the rarity of the Pippin-induced rush I felt at ART is proof of how mysterious and elusive it is.

Thankfully, ART’s production is headed to Broadway, where lots of ink will surely spill over Paulus’s interpretation, her “take.” But ultimately, and to its credit, this revival is more than just a “concept.” It’s a show, a gosh-darn, full-blooded, mouth-gaping show.

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Boston, Part II: “Our Town,” at the Huntington, will appear soon…!

photo by Michael J. Lutch

Patina Miller and company, photo by Michael J. Lutch

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