It’s not easy being the son of the most powerful man in Europe. Pépin the Hunchback, the eldest son of Charlemagne, didn’t have much of a life: His father dismissed his mother, and after his attempt at revolt was put down, Dad had him tonsured and sent to a monastery, where he died, not yet 50 years old. He has a far better time of it as the hero of “Pippin.”
This musical from Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson celebrated its 40th anniversary last year; the original Broadway production, directed by Bob Fosse, snagged nine Tonys and ran for nearly 2,000 performances before closing in 1977. It hasn’t been back to the Great White Way since, but the current circus-inspired American Repertory Theater revival helmed by ART artistic director Diane Paulus deserves to get there.
Pippin’s problem, as he explains in his opening song, is that “I’ve got to be where my spirit can run free / Got to find my corner of the sky.” He tries to go to war with his dad and his half-brother Lewis, but he has no taste for fighting. The sexual revolution doesn’t do it for him either. He can become Holy Roman Emperor if he kills his father — and he does, but then he realizes Holy Roman Emperor is a crummy job. Fortunately, “Pippin” is the kind of show where you can go to the Leading Player, who serves as the narrator (Ben Vereen won a Tony for his performance in the original production), and have him reverse events. Charles (as Charlemagne is called here) springs back to life and Pippin goes on his not-so-merry way till he meets a kind widow, Catherine, and her son, Theo, and settles down — maybe.
Life is a cabaret in “Pippin”: The fourth wall is dismantled right from the start, and the performers are very self-conscious about performing. At the ART, life is a three-ring circus. It begins with a giant shadow of Patina Miller as the Leading Player, as if to remind us that the theater has always been bigger than life. She steps out to tell us, in the opening song, that they have “Magic to Do” for us, and she’s joined by Terrence Mann as Charles; Andrea Martin as Charles’s mother, Berthe; Charlotte d’Amboise as Fastrada, Pippin’s stepmother; and Erik Altemus as Lewis, all promising feats and treats.
Then the curtain rises, and the production delivers. The stage is enclosed in what seems to be a huge circus tent studded with stars. Contortionists sashay about; aerialists cavort overhead. Eight performers spell out “P-I-P-P-I-N” with their bodies, and Pippin himself, in the form of Matthew James Thomas, makes his entrance by jumping through the very small paper hoop that forms the loop of the first “P” and landing on his feet.
That’s just the beginning. The performers juggle swords in the “War is a Science” number. They jump rope with a performer substituting for the rope. A woman balances a hoop on her forehead and a man jumps through it. The severed head of a Visigoth speaks from inside a trunk. Charles’s corpse levitates under a cloth and then vanishes; he reappears, alive, under another cloth. Charles himself unicycles across the stage as casually as if he were walking. There’s also the kind of magic that’s no illusion, as when Miller leads two men in a soft-shoe number while, behind them, soldiers are butchered. So much for war as a science.
But just as “Pippin” teeters between “Extraordinary” (Pippin’s temper tantrum about wanting to be special) and the “Ordinary Life” he shares with Catherine and Theo, the ART production melds extraordinary circus acrobatics and magical illusions with “ordinary” virtues like accomplished acting, singing, and dancing plus a refreshing lack of cynicism. Miller is an infectiously inviting host, smart, sassy, and swivel-hipped, with a voice that, in “Glory,” soars over the chorus. Thomas brings a gawky energy to the title role, and an innocent earnestness that allows him to sing “Corner of the Sky” without the usual Disney overtones. He and Rachel Bay Jones go well together; her long-tressed, squeaky-voiced Catherine is all tender practicality, and in their “Love Song” duet they suggest that love itself is extraordinary. They make good parents for Andrew Cekala’s sweet and spunky Theo. Jones also displays fine comic timing in her exchanges with Miller, as Catherine tries to keep Pippin down on the farm when the plot calls for him to go out in a blaze of glory in the Grand Finale.
Mann’s Charles is bluff, gruff, and down to earth; he traverses the tongue-twisting section of “War Is a Science” without a hitch and never suggests that he knows he’s a caricature. Martin is a feisty Berthe who rescues her trite “If I refuse to grow old, I can stay young till I die” lyric with a surprise. D’Amboise’s Fastrada is a sultry schemer who shimmies like Salome and in her “Spread a Little Sunshine” spreads a lot of sex.
“Pippin” has two endings: This is the newer, and better, one, in which, as Pippin, Catherine, and Theo slip offstage to resume their ordinary life, Theo, unable to resist the lure of stardom, sneaks back and is taken in hand by the Leading Player and the rest of the troupe. You can’t blame him: anyone who’s seen this production knows how magical the theater can be.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.