In my previous post I wrote about how surprising it was to find such striking beauty in the overstated, extremist interior of Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia. It brings to mind one of my art professor’s words to me from so long ago, “To make a great painting you have to push it to the edge where it almost doesn’t work.” That has been a very useful insight that applies to many things in life, not just for my own art making.
Case in point, Diane Paulus‘ latest production of Pippin at A.R.T. A big hit on Broadway 40 years ago, Pippin was an unexpected inclusion (IMHO) for the 2012-13 season. Having seen it on Broadway in 1973, I had cataloged it away as musical comedy light (as opposed to the musical comedy dark of Sweeney Todd) that was saved from vapidity by Ben Vereen‘s spectacular performance as the Leading Player.
And yet now that I have seen it I see that it is a perfect fit for Paulus’ well known mission for A.R.T. to “expand the boundaries of theater by experimenting with a new physical vocabulary of musical theater storytelling.” Fresh from her critical success with an updated adaption of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess and her work with the Cirque du Soleil on their latest creation, Amaluna, Paulus is on a roll. For a play that questions the viability of our desire to be exceptional, she is just that. Exceptional.
This new Pippin feels smart, sharp and utterly beguiling. Paulus cooks up a wild concoction of disparate memes to make this feel very fresh—the musical theater tradition of the 50’s, Bob Fosse-esque swivel hipping (he actually was the choreographer for the original production), Cirque du Soleil circus acrobatics by way of Montreal’s Gypsy Snider and Les 7 doigts de la main, and the structure of a morality play that traces with sincerity the journey for self-knowledge. With that armature in place, add the best of the best creative team (since Paulus has connections with just about everybody doing great work in theater these days)—hot shot Tony award winning designer Scott Pask (Book of Mormon, Coast of Utopia); Dominique Lemieux, one of of the original Cirque du Soleil costume designers; choreographer Chet Walker, heir apparent to Bob Fosse; lighting designer Kenneth Posner; music supervisor Nadia DiGiallonardo, among many others.
Then there is the cast. Pattina Miller is toweringly terrific as the Leading Player (sorry Ben Vereen, you don’t own that role any more my friend). Matthew James Thomas combines a strong stage presence with the necessary innocence of a jejune Pippin. Hell, everyone is good—singing, dancing, interacting, entertaining, working as a well oiled ensemble. Is this production ready for Broadway? Lock, stock and barrel.
And while all the pieces come together so well, Paulus doesn’t lose connection with the substance of the story.
In Paulus’ words:
Pippin deals with an incredibly serious subject: how far would you go to be extraordinary? Will you burn yourself alive to be extraordinary?…This question is deeply relevant to our lives today. It can be relevant to anyone, from an eighteen-year-old trying to figure out the meaning of their life, to a middle-aged person trying to assess what they’ve achieved in their life. What are the choices we make to pursue a life that is “extraordinary”?
What I love about Pippin is that all of this is expressed through a theatrical metaphor. The show is a play within a play. It’s about a troupe of players who are enacting this ritualized performance. In the world of the play, to be extraordinary is to perform “the Grand Finale.” It uses theater as a metaphor for examining one’s own life.
Friends who know me will be shocked that I am advocating for a musical comedy. But like the Sagrada Familia, this wild concoction takes it to the extreme but finds that sweet spot where it works. While Gaudi may have to intercede from across the veil to get his beloved cathedral in Barcelona completed, Paulus is very much among the living and applying her prodigious skills to a steady stream of inventive and ingenious productions.