The musical Pippin was first produced on Broadway in 1972. It belongs to a group of musicals like Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair that explore questions about our lives.
This production, at the small Charing Cross Theatre, had a cast of eight people and felt like a throwback to the 1970s with a set that resembled a hippy paradise with riotous colours, dream catchers and gentle bird song. It was played with an audience at both ends and the playing in the middle, so you felt close to the action but with the other audience in your eyeline.
This production wanted us to see the performing world of the 1970s as well as the 8th-century court of King Charlemagne with its intrigue, politics and war. “We’ve got magic to do” they sing, and they promised us a big ending. Should you selfishly pursue everything for your own enlightenment (you only get one life) or should you compromise? Pippin sets out on his quest of self-discovery and finds that you can also truly understand yourself when you realise that life is not just about you – it’s about other people. He grows up and sees the spectacular for what it is – just a spectacle that can consume you with its vanity.
This production was genuinely foot tapping and upbeat. Each of the characters had important things to say but they also worked powerfully together in the storytelling. Ryan Anderson was a great naïve but determined Pippin. He was also a fantastic dancer who could really move around the stage. The Leading Player was performed by Ian Carlyle. His part was like the ego of Pippin urging him on to fame and glory, but I didn’t quite believe his anger, it seemed stuck on like a false beard. The ladies did particularly well with Genevieve Nicole particularly good as the grandma who still had a lot of get up and go in her. Natalie McQueen played Catherine (Pippin’s eventual wife) nicely gooky and desperate in her capture of him but movingly gentle as he moved away from her. She made us care for her and him.
All that 70s music and choreography (originally by Bob Fosse) may seem a bit nostalgic and innocent to some, but I think it still expresses how we feel – exuberant, passionate or hateful. It’s vaudeville song and dance but cleverly uses it to tell a story. Life today may move more quickly and seemingly sophisticated, but these 50-year-old musicals still have something to say. They’re not museum pieces to be dusted off. Underneath all our pretensions we still face the same big questions about our lives and what they’re for. This Pippin made us care so I’m not surprised to hear that its run was extended.
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