the amazing Ben Vereen!!!
"Pippin" is a musical composed by Stephen Schwartz ("Wicked") and directed/choreographed by stage and dance legend Bob Fosse. It is one of the longest running musicals known and has a revival that's currently already starting to run. The plot takes place in the middle ages where Pippin, the son of King Charlemagne, feels unsatisfied with his life and tries different lifestyles in order to seek his purpose. And without giving away anything that happens, and that's the show in a nutshell. Although Pippin and Charlemagne were both famous figures in history, this show is about as historically reliable as Disney's Pocahontas. Coming into this musical knowing very little about it, I did not have high expectations, I thought it would be dry and cracked with age, but I also knew some people listed this as one of the best musicals of all time. I decided to watch the 1981 television recording of the show once I found it on Youtube. After watching this, I found myself actually enjoying it, but its nowhere close to my top ten.
Let's start with the acting. The show calls itself a Musical Comedy, so naturally, the people in this cast are all really funny. There are a lot of characters who only pop in for a while, do something or sing something and then leave and never really appear again more than once or twice, but they are still memorable performances Its to the point where I want to know what happened to them later on in the musical, but it never even gives a hint about them since Pippin's "life and times" are the focus. Benjamin Rayson makes a robust and boisterous King Charlemagne, along with his flawless timing ("Lewis is an asshole, my dear lady" the quotable lines in this musical are bountiful).William Katt is always youthful and energetic as the idealistic hero, Pippin, without making the character another bland dreamer hero., while also adding comedy to a character you might not expect to be comedic.I know Chita Rivera only from West Side Story, so I was surprised to see her cast in the role of Fastrada, Pippins scheming stepmother. She manages to be devious and selfish while adding a touch of her familiar hip swinging, leg stretching sex appeal. I utterly ADORED Martha Raye as Berthe. She has a charming presence onstage and is definitely the funniest performer out of the whole box ("Well some men raise flags when they can't get anything else up."). I was disappointed that she was in only one scene and never appeared again. But with this cast, the icing on the cake is Ben Vereen. As the Leading Player (the shows narrator), he's charismatic to the point of no return and a joy to watch onstage. There's a twinkle in his eye, a slide in his step (holy cow the man can dance Fosse), and a ring in his voice where you cannot lay your eyes or ears off him. That man deserved every award, including the Tony, he got for the role.
When I read that Fosse directed and choreographed the show, I thought his sexy, smooth jazz style would not fit. But Pippin already knows what limits the Middle Ages has on a show, especially a comedy, so they use an anachronistic (breaking the period to help the audience gain an emotional understanding) approach. With the anachronism, the choreography obviously functions much better. The "jazz" style can crescendo and decrescendo from graceful and slow to fast and intense. It might seem simple at first glance, but a closer look reveals small, complicated details that add intricacy. Vereen, Rivera, and the chorus (of course) are the stronger dancers. In fact, this is an ensemble show. Since the show focuses on one main character and has a narrator, the chorus does everything else. But the chorus sometimes even upstage the principals!
This is definitely not a rollicking comedy. Though the show is lighthearted (except for a few moments here and there). The humor is mostly carried out through clever (sometimes bawdy) wit, staging and the breaking-no, more like tearing apart and then crushing every surviving bit of the fourth wall. Although it's trying to avoid too much humor to the point where it cannot be taken seriously, I'm sure a little more humor could have still been effective.
The Shows music is drenched in the seventies ballad style, which, I'm sorry to say, I am not a fan of. To me, it always sounded cheesy, boring, and painfully slow. There are three songs in the show I can say I loved. The first is the shows opening number, "Magic to Do." Its fun, mellow, catchy, foreshadows the show straight off the bat and gets you excited for the magic of a night at the theater. The Second one (which follows "Magic to Do") is Pippin big ballad about purpose, "Corner of the Sky." It's lovely intervals and hopeful melody help show off Pippin's tenor range and although Katt sometimes sounds like his voice was tired in the song, his enthusiasm and acting make it work. The third song, which is a little later after "Corner" is "Glory." "Glory" details the joy and duty of fighting for the crusades. It starts with a Gothic organ, and then changes to a steady, catchy show tune beat, and then an upbeat, kitschy jazz piece and switches around the order that these three parts of the song are done. There is sharp red lighting, body parts being thrown onstage, and chorus members cheerfully singing into vintage microphones with "WAR" on them. This song is not only highly enjoyable, but an epitome of satire, hands down, the best part of all one hundred and seven minutes of the show. But all of these songs are placed in the first act and the rest of the songs don't live up. "Spread a Little Sunshine" has a catchy tune, yes, and "Love Song" has tongue-in-cheek lyrics indeed, and I will give credit to "War is a Science" for the comedy and chorus bits being well done, but everything else is musically and lyrically slow.
However, what is really interesting about the show is the message, which is never really clear until the very end. Its funny because the theme is supposed to be a contrast and one side is exploited throughout the show in about every way you can think of so when the other side shows up, its somewhat of a surprise. I am not going to spoil what it is but the way it is staged and delivered make it all the more powerful and enjoyable, and for a comedy to actually be powerful is quite an accomplishment.
Sp has Pippin gone bad with age or is it "ZOMAGAWD AMAZING" ? It's not a bad show in the slightest degree, and with this puppy, a bad casting choice or a stupid staging idea could cause it to sink, but the recording is well-cast, well-staged, and quite humorous. Though the age can naturally show up and slow it down (especially in some of the songs). Perhaps if more songs were as memorable as "Glory" and if there was a touch more comedy, I would rank it higher than what it already is. But even with this show being what it is, I do not regret watching it in the slightest bit. I would definitely watch the revival, just to see what it does differently. Overall, Pippin is not one of my personal top favorites, but I still enjoy it. If you like smart, not too forward comedies and the seventies music style, I'd say give it a shot.