A photo a friend took at the Kennedy Center with a smuggled-in Nikon some 31 years ago still graces a wall in my apartment. It’s the opening moment Bob Fosse devised for Pippin during its pre-Broadway tryout here: an inky black stage with 11 pairs of disembodied, white-gloved hands floating in the air and Ben Vereen’s facejust his facesinging, “Join us, leave your cares behind you.”
The number was called “Magic to Do,” and it firmly established Fosse as the evening’s chief magician. For the next half-hour or so, he dazzled the crowd with the theatrical sleight-of-hand, -of-leg, and -of-elbow that would make his directorial efforts widely celebrated that same year on movie screens (Cabaret) and television (Liza With a Z). Then, about 30 minutes in, Fosse could delay things no longer, and Pippin’s story, about the 8th-century identity quest of Charlemagne’s lackadaisical son, asserted itselfat which point the enterprise stopped pretty much dead in its tracks.
Still, there was that peppy soft-rock score, by then-25-year-old tyro Stephen Schwartz, whose Godspell was running strong off-Broadway, and word-of-mouth was affirmative (audiences knew they’d be wowed by the opening moment, which was why we’d brought the camera). Despite mixed reviews and talk of backstage friction (Schwartz was reportedly distressed that his charming little score was getting swamped by showbiz), there were lines at the box office. At some point, Fosse barred Schwartz from rehearsals and began reworking the material on his own, and by the fourth week, the Opera House was SRO.
A month later, at New York’s Imperial Theater, reviews were still mixed, but Fosse devised a TV spot that did the same trick word-of-mouth had done in D.C. Though A Little Night Music copped most of that season’s major Tony Awards, Pippin was cited for lighting, sets, and the contributions of Fosse and Vereen, and it ended up playing for almost five years.
I mention all this by way of noting both that D.C. has a connection to Pippinand that tinkering with the show is pretty much a requisite for success. The script is a wan reworking of Candide, and there’s nothing sacrosanct about either the music (James Taylor-ish Broadway rock) or the lyrics (“Rivers belong where they can ramble, eagles belong where they can fly”). The flower-childish anti-war undercurrents that made Broadway patrons feel vaguely hip in the Vietnam era have dated badly. If the show isn’t propped up by directorial legerdemain, it simply hasn’t got much going for it.
So Thomas W. Jones II is on firm ground when he funks things up with a six-piece R&B ensemble and a staging that feels like a cross between a revival meeting and a Caribbean carnival. Where Fosse gave the title role to a nerdy white boy with a perm and then had Leading Player Vereen tutor him in soul, Jones’ Pippin is a hip African-American kid (Anthony Manough) who simply picks up a few pointers from the sinuous street magician (Jahi A. Kearse) who’s dancing rings around him. That reduces the storyline from one of growth to one of mere choice-making, but the director apparently figured his staging could make up in energy what his take on the story lacks in urgency.
And from the opening moment, he and choreographer Patdro Harris do their damnedest to keep the stage wattage high. The magician juggles balls of pure light, the chorus leaps and spins, feet stomp, hands stab the air, and amplified voices bounce around the farthest reaches of Bethesda’s Round House Theatre. A few seconds later, Manough sings about rivers rambling and eagles flying, and the commotion starts again as the chorus joins in. Charlemagne (an imperious Richard L. Pelzman) has no sooner welcomed his son home than pandemonium resumes, first in a patter-song lecture on war that’s nearly overwhelmed by bric-a-brac (Lucite maps, multihued lunchboxes, and an armored chorus clanking all over the stage) and then in an anti-war number that is similarly busy and stage-filling.
Pippin’s grandmother (Jane Pesci-Townsend) belts a paean to seizing the day, and before the lad can quite catch his breath, stepmom Tracy McMullan is sashaying into a number about seizing the empire. It’s all very energetic, but with every song treated as either a power ballad or a production number, it comes to seem much of a muchness after a bit.
And therein lies the problem with Jones’ approach. When the show isn’t popping and whizzing and sounding like a Wilson Pickett concert with too many backup singers, it’s dragged down by the flat, characterless bookbut when the director pulls out every stop to goose it into life, the numbers all feel the same. Funk, it turns out, isn’t quite as flexible a form as the music-hall variety of showbiz in which Fosse trafficked. In fact, funk is sort of the antithesis of Broadway show music (at least of the sort of show music being written in the ’70s, when lyrical cleverness”what separates a charlatan from a Charlemagne”was meant to take precedence over a driving beat). That’s probably why the director opts for C&W inflections in part of the second act.
The performers are mostly pretty swell, though costumer Reggie Ray hasn’t done the huskier folks on stage any favors by putting them in unitards. Happily, he’s been kinder to the principals. Kearse’s serpentine shimmying in the Vereen part is aided and abetted by a copper tunic that catches every shade of the rainbow Martha Mountain has used to illuminate those corners of the stage not already lit up by Manough’s smile. Sherri L. Edelen deftly sends up the notion that she’s the “everyday, average, ordinary” kind of woman Pippin might like by making sure none of those adjectives describes the slightest part of her. Gary E. Vincent is a riot as Pippin’s vainglorious clotheshorse of a half brother.
In short, everyone’s doing perfectly acceptable work, but they’re not magiciansand Pippin is a show that needs rabbits pulled every minute out of every available hat, or it’s just a lot of color and noise. CP