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“Pippin” and the circle of life

Photo courtesy American Repertory Theater

Here’s the thing about Diane Paulus: Her work has a Broadway smartness to it, and a nuanced edginess that pokes you a little in places that can be uncomfortable. (One of her recurring themes — in Porgy and Bess, Best of Both Worlds, Johnny Baseball — is race in America.) But in the end — and this only became clear to me with her new Broadway-bound hit show Pippin, in its last days at American Repertory Theater — Paulus is a romantic and her biggest theme is “love.”

That’s not a huge revelation. After all, almost everyone’s biggest theme is love. It’s the biggest theme in the history of storytelling. But Paulus has a particularly deft way of presenting love onstage. She tiptoes right up to schmaltz or horror (I’m thinking Donkey Show here), and then turns a sharp corner to romance, even as it, too, can be flawed.

Some may wonder why Pippin, one of Stephen Schwartz‘s best known musicals which hasn’t had a major revival since its original Broadway run (1972-77), might be on Paulus’ radar. But Pippin, with all its sleight-of-hand circus theatricals and explosive energy, is the kind of love story Paulus wraps her arms around and then, in turn, puts the audience in a big group-hug experience. Indeed, on opening night, there couldn’t have been more anticipation, more audience gladness and willingness if a golden quaff of Charlemagne Microbrew Ale had come with every ticket.

Paulus took Pippin‘s opening song — “Magic to Do” — as a manifesto in this production, the theatricality and spectacle of which has a wow-factor of an opera laced with crack. It’s cirque, plus Shakespeare, Monthy Python, Looney Tunes and Voltaire all popping onstage at once.

The most glory in any production of Pippin — I’ve seen only one other: the original, but I know this is true  – has to come from the “lead player” — originated by Ben Vereen and reinterpreted with angularity and grace (a rare combination) by Patina Miller. Everything else in the story — Pippin himself, his father, grandmother, girlfriend, rapes, wars and pillages — hinge on this role. While the A.R.T. performances are all talented acts of faith in theatricality, physicality and Bob Fosse hands, hips and heel turns  – Miller’s is the one that will linger for both its enticing charm and ultimate cynicism.

The circus is the overarching conceit here. And we might think of the “lead player” as the ring master. But she’s more of a puppet master. It’s not clear, in the end, whose strings are being pulled and if we’re all marionettes whose stories are not so much about being extraordinary as repertory.

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