I loved Lucie. In fact, the highlight of the touring production of Pippin, coming to us from a Broadway run that nabbed a few Tony Awards including Best Revival of a Musical, is “No Time at All.” That’s the show-stopping Act One number delivered by Berthe, the wise and eternally youthful grandmother of the show’s title character. Lucky for us in the DC audience, Berthe is played by Lucie Arnaz, and she delivers a memorable, mesmerizing performance.
Up until that point, it was the King Charles (better known to history as Charlemagne) of John Rubinstein that was really doing it for me. Twice, I made a note: “JR is stealing the show.” The entire cast, however, is quite good. The production is a lot of fun. The musical is a breezy, scintillating entertainment. Its score is a delight. (Wunderkind Stephen Schwartz wrote the music and lyrics while in his 20s; the book of the musical is by Roger O. Hirson.) The revival brings back for the first time (outside of mostly academic or dinner theater productions) a fondly remembered and, in some ways, a ground-breaking musical that deserves the second look that this success has afforded it.
There’s only one problem: I saw the Bob Fosse production. I hate to be that guy, looking back to the distant past and insisting that it was so much better then. But I have no choice. Good as this revival is, happy as I am to have seen it, I was also aware that there was something missing. This production is a lot of fun. Fosse’s production was fun incarnate. This production has moments of brilliance. In Fosse’s production, just about every moment was brilliant.
Most importantly, this production, perhaps because of the circus concept that the director Diane Paulus has introduced, somehow has blunted the muscularity of the narrative, its forward drive, and its clarity. The essential conflict of the piece is the pull to be “extra-ordinary” that Pippin feels, and, consequently, the pulling of Pippin toward a “blaze of glory” ending, in which ending the Leading Player and the rest of the company are heavily invested, and which ending is ultimately (spoiler alert) thwarted when Pippin opts instead for the quotidian pleasures of a more ordinary existence.
The cirque elements unique to this production are certainly impressive, but the environment it creates, I feel, diluted the story-telling and diminished the stakes, somehow. Whenever the guy representing the “blaze of glory” finale came out, my reaction was, “More circus, oh, wait, he’s really part of the story.” In Fosse’s production, his appearances fueled the narrative drive. He and the implications of his presence were always in our minds as we watched the rest of the show. Everything the Leading Player did was directed toward the “blaze of glory” goal, and the struggle between that Leading Player (he, as played by Ben Vereen in the original; she, in the revival) and the widow who courts Pippin during Act Two felt much more pointed. Comes to that, Pippin’s quest had more definition. The (imagined) regicide at the end of Act One felt more real, more consequential. The peeling off at the end of costume/make-up/wig, in stark light, had a rawer effect.
Paulus does, however, deliver an impressive ending. She does a trick familiar from productions of some Shakespeare plays, which is to make the young boy Theo feel the same pull that Pippin felt earlier, implying a cycle rather than a resolution. That was stunning and sent us out on a high. The ending sequence also echoed one of Paulus’ earlier triumphs, Porgy and Bess. In that, she frequently began songs without the orchestra, with only an actor, a cappella, singing haltingly and as if spontaneously a song like “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” She saves that effect here until the finale, and it works nicely.
Still, I did feel that, on some level, the show was a bit less than the sum of its wonderful parts. In addition to Arnaz and Rubinstein, other actors were impressive. Sabrina Harper (as the step-mother Fastrada) scored big with her number, even if the subplot involving her and her son didn’t have much traction. Kristine Reese was a beautifully ingenuous Catherine. Kyle Dean Massey, as Pippin, has a lovely voice and brought a sweet and unexpected humor to certain moments, even though his quest for significance seemed muted. Sasha Allen, as the Leading Player, sparkled in the most Fosse-esque of the dance numbers (for instance, the trio dance in the song “Glory,” which, press material reveals, was used in the first-ever TV ad for a Broadway show that featured a performance excerpt), even though her presence didn’t have the force that the character had in the Vereen-Fosse incarnation.
Just to refresh my memory (I obviously can’t go back to the performance I saw in the 1970s), I did check out a YouTube clip of a production shot live on video and directed by Fosse’s dance captain and featuring Vereen. It was clear from that clip that the drive to the finale wasn’t as robust in Paulus’ production as it was in the Fosse original or its progeny.
Pippin, by the way, represented Bob Fosse at the height of his career. The same year he conquered Broadway with it, he conquered Hollywood with Cabaret and TV with Liza with a Z. Chicago, which would come a few years later, was a disappointment at the time, even though the revival is now the longest-running American musical in Broadway history. Pippin ran for years and, when it closed, it was one of the ten longest-running shows in Broadway history.
I remember listening to the original cast album in college and thinking that the actor who was the orignal Pippin had the most gorgeous voice one could imagine. He was the son of the renowned concert pianist Arthur Rubinstein and, despite playing such an important role in the canon of American musical theatre, his subsequent career was mostly in straight (as opposed to musical, not as opposed to gay!) roles. He won a Tony for Best Actor in a Play for Children of a Lesser God in the late 1970s. I saw him at Circle in the Square when he led the cast of a hit revival of The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. It’s a special treat of this touring production that John Rubinstein is now, 40-plus years later, playing the father of the role he originated. And, for those of us in the know, how much added poignancy is there in the final sequence when he is among those urging young Theo toward what Pippin has just abandoned. That was one of the “wow” moments of the show.
Another unique aspect to seeing the show at the National also involves the end sequence. The scenery is taken away and the back stage wall is revealed. It is covered with the names of shows that have stopped by the National over the years. However, it also includes a special tribute to Bob Fosse. He was in DC with his revival of Sweet Charity at the National when he suffered his fatal heart attack and the Sweet Charity company devoted their space on that back wall to his memory.
Closes January 4, 2014
The National Theatre
1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
2 hours, 35 minutes, 1 intermission
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I also couldn’t help thinking how, when I saw the Fosse version, the orchestra was about the same size and played at about the same volume as the current band, who are not wildly louder, and yet now we have all (or most) of the cast wearing those Madonna/Rent face mics. Why? I thought they were needed when a band is so rock-amplified that, otherwise, the actor can’t be heard. Here, in a space in which I have heard voices, un-amplified, like James Earl Jones’s (as Paul Robeson) fill the space perfectly and all the way up to the second balcony, it’s dispiriting that our new normal is those ungainly, un-sightly ampliphiers that make actors look as if they need to blow their nose.
Except for Lucie Arnaz. I couldn’t see her mic, but I heard every word she spoke or sang. Arnaz has (thanks to the Desi genes?) a wonderful voice, stronger than her mother’s. Lucie with an I and an E has been doing theatre for decades (I think since at least the national tour of Seesaw, about the same time as the original Pippin). Her most prominent original Broadway role was in They’re Playing Our Song, and that original cast album attests to the strength of her voice. But let’s be real…in the role originated by the archetypal “Granny,” Irene Ryan of The Beverly Hillbillies, Arnaz doesn’t read old. She’d be able still to pull off one of the leads in Chicago, for heaven sakes. Still, even if later on in the show it was hard to pull her out from the crowd amid the twenty-something acrobats because she looks so great, there wasn’t an ounce of missed opportunity in the Berthe role. Among the Tony’s that this revival won was for Andrea Martin as Berthe, but it’s hard to imagine, having seen Ms Arnaz, anyone being more impressive.
And I can’t imagine anyone who loves musical theatre passing up a chance to see her nail this role. And also to enjoy the echoes of Fosse that Paulus and Co. incorporate, to wonderful effect. Sure, maybe I heard it before played on a Stradivarius, and maybe I’ll never forget that. But I’m glad I saw it again and, if you love musicals, you will be glad you saw it, even if you have to listen to that guy go on about how much better it was back in the day.
Pippin . book by Roger O. Hirson and music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz . Director: Diana Paulus . Featuring Lucie Arnaz, Sasha Allen as Leading Player, Kyle Selig, John Rubinstein, Sabrina Harper, Kristine Reese, Skyler Adams, Sascha Bachman, Bradley Benjamin, Dmitrious Bistrevsky, Mark Burrell, Mathew deGuzman, Fernando Dudka, Mirela Golinska, Kelsey Jamieson, Preston Jamieson, Lisa Karlin, Alan Kelly, Melodie Lamoreux, Tory Trowbridge, Mackenzie Warren and Borris York. Choreography (in the style of Bob Fosse) Chet Walker . Circus creation: Gypsy Snider . Music supervision and arrangements: Nadia DiGiallonardo . Orchestrations: Larry Hochman . Scenic design: Scott Pask, . Costume design: Dominique Lemieux . Lighting design: Kenneth Posner . Sound design: Jonathan Deans and Garth Helm . Reviewed by Christopher Henley
Closes Jan 4
Josh Simon . DCOutlook if stealing scenes is a crime, lock up showbiz legacy Lucie Arnaz for life. As feisty grandma Berthe, Arnaz stops the show in its tracks… to deliver some blunt, musical wisdom, and redefines what it means to age gracefully.
Leslie Milk . Washingtonian a lot of excitement and fun in this revival of the 1970s hit Broadway musical. But it loses energy in the second act.
Doug Rule . MetroWeekly [Lucie Arnaz] is more convincing and captivating in the role than the great Andrea Martin was in her Tony-winning performance last year.
Rebecca J. Ritzel . City Paper For about 80 percent of the time you’ll spend watching Pippin at the National Theatre, the concept of setting this 1970s musical in a circus completely and totally works, providing spectacle and suspense under the Big Top.
Nelson Pressley . Washington Post It’s a circus on purpose, and the flashy acts of derring-do are remarkably right for reanimating the tuneful 1972 Bob Fosse-directed musical
Gary Tischler . Georgetowner If “The Lion King” is about the “Circle of Life,” well, Pippin is about the circus of life.
Jennifer Perry . BroadwayWorld This is definitely one to see. For those who have seen the Broadway production and loved it, fear not. This is not a situation where the tour pales in comparison.
Tina Ghandchilar . MDTheatreGuide Sasha Allen commands the stage as the Leading Player, her powerful spine-chilling voice is authentic and magnetic,
Gina Jun . DCMetroTheaterArts The evening’s showstopper was Lucie Arnaz, as Pippin’s naughty grandmother, Berthe.