“Pippin”, Sydney Lyric at The Star until January 31. Reviewed by HELEN MUSA
IN a singular triumph for acrobatics, magic and dance over acting, plot and emotional engagement, the Tony-award winning production of “Pippin“ opened at the Lyric Theatre in Sydney to thunderous shouts and confected streamer-bursts of public relief at being back in the theatre again.
Directed by Diane Paulus and billed as “a ‘Pippin’ for the 21st century”, this, like the original 1972 show with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, book by Roger O. Hirson and direction by Bob Fosse, is vaguely based on the medieval story of Charlemagne the Holy Roman Emperor (here Charles), his sons Pepin and Louis (here Pippin and Lewis) and one of his wives, Fastrada.
There the resemblance to historical fact stops as the musical veers into an Everyman-type search by a young man to find, as the song goes, his “corner in the sky”.
Sweet-voiced but bland, Ainsley Melham, as Pippin, stolidly makes his progress through the various sins of the flesh and mind to some kind of reconciliation with life and domesticity.
While this much-lauded Broadway production is firmly set in the world of circus, with all the accompanying tinsel and glitter, all productions of the musical are constructed on vaudevillian lines, with a pseudo-Brechtian character called the Leading Player acting as the ringmaster or MC to introduce the characters, prod them into action and shut them up if they talk too much.
Played with arch knowingness by American performer Gabrielle McClinton, this character proved intrusive and no help in making out, over the razzle-dazzle and strident music, directed by former Canberran Daniel Edmonds, just what was going on.
Scarcely a skerrick of acting was to be seen in the production, even from seasoned players Simon Burke as Charles or Lucy Maunder as the widow Catherine, unless the show-stopping performance by TV identity Kerri-Anne Kennerley playing Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother, counted, who wowed the audience as she sang “No time at all” and swung from the high wire.
The triumphs of the evening were undoubtedly the superb acrobatics, directed by Gypsy Snider of the Montreal company Les 7 Doigts de la Main, performed by virtuosic artists.
The choreography too, by Chet Walker and “in the style of Bob Fosse,” was superbly performed, with magnificent chorus-dancing and a showstopper by Leslie Bell as the wicked stepmother, Fastrada.
Stage magic tricks came a close third, with gobsmacking routines involving a headless torso and a disembodied pair of legs pushing a trolley.
Alas, any hope that Pippin, purportedly a university scholar and philosopher-prince, might have the capacity to arouse our interest, remain unfulfilled.
One of the longest evenings in the theatre that I can remember came to its conclusion when Theo, the young son of Catherine, stood centre stage, about to embark on the same journey as Pippin. First interpolated in 1998, the scene implies the circularity of life, one of the few ideas to emerge all night.
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