Seems Like Old Times: Diane Paulus’s Wonderful Pippin Gives an Acrobatic Nod to Fosse

But 'The Memory Show' is unlikely to linger

'Pippin.' Photo by Joan Marcus

‘Pippin.’ Photo by Joan Marcus

Leave your fields to flower, leave your cheese to sour. In her new revival of Pippin, which opened at the Music Box last week, director Diane Paulus really does have some magic to do (whether or not it’s just for you). And if you have any fondness for musical theater—in this case, deliriously joyful, gorgeously staged, unexpectedly moving musical theater—you’ll want to join her for this colorful, acrobatic, magical indeed interpretation of Roger O. Hirson and Stephen Schwartz’s anecdotic revue.

Doodle-ee-do.

I’m riffing, of course, on lyrics from “Magic to Do,” Pippin’s opening number. This is what one tends to do with this show, not seen on Broadway since its original 1972 production closed in the summer of 1977 but ingrained in nearly all of us from the innumerable high school and community productions staged over the past three and a half decades. It’s larded with at a least a half-dozen infectious, mildly funky pop-rock theater songs, most with clever rhymes and memorable imagery in their lyrics. The songs stay with you, and get quoted and riffed on, even as the show’s book, the shaggy story of a medieval price with a post-collegiate identity crisis—he’s determined to be extraordinary, but he can’t quite figure out how—recedes from memory.

Hence my slight concern as I approached Ms. Paulus’s revival, the final show of the Broadway season. The last time I’d seen Pippin was when we at Columbia High School in Maplewood, N.J., closed our production in March 1992. Since then, I loved the score and had only hazy recollections of the book. Plus I recall with trepidation last season’s insipid, kindergarten-on-acid revival of Godspell, Mr. Schwartz’s other feel-good 1970s warhorse. The word from Cambridge—where Ms. Paulus debuted this Pippin at the American Repertory Theater, of which she is artistic director and where she did likewise with last year’s controversial and excellent Porgy and Bess—was enthusiastic, but there were also dissenters amid those I knew who’d seen it.

But from the show’s first moment, all apprehension evaporated. The conceit of Pippin is that it is being presented by a troupe of traveling performers; Pippin the musical is a show about this troupe putting on a show about Pippin the prince. (The key role, made famous by Ben Vereen in Bob Fosse’s original production, is known only as Leading Player.) Ms. Paulus’s innovation is to make those troupers into a circus; there’s a big top and trapezes and strongmen and acrobats. As the audience enters the Music Box, there’s a scrim across the stage, the front wall of the big top, and as the lights go down and the music begins, a dancer is lit from behind and silhouetted against that scrim in a classic Fosse pose. It’s Patina Miller, sinewy and sensational (and, as of yesterday, Tony-nominated) as the Leading Player, and it’s a beautiful, thrilling moment, improved only as that curtain falls and the full big top is revealed, packed with an ensemble that sings and dances but also spins and twists and climbs; it’s busy and overwhelming and wonderful.

And it’s a very fair preview of what’s to come. Ms. Paulus’s staging is kinetic and acrobatic; it’s also consistently beautiful. It’s a twist to cast a woman as the Leading Player, and Ms. Miller is riveting. The choreography, by Chet Walker, is listed in the playbill as “in the style of Bob Fosse,” and one of the pleasures of his “in the style” treatment is the occasional posed moments, like that opening one, that present not as reductively Fosse-esque but instead as delicious Fosse homages. The acrobats are astonishing. (Gypsy Snider has a “circus creation” credit.)

The most astonishing moment, as you may have heard, is Andrea Martin’s acrobatics. The justly beloved Broadway vet here plays Berthe, Pippin’s fun-loving grandmother, who advises the angsty post-adolescent that it’s time to start living. She does this in a number that eventually leaves her in a sparkly leotard, delivering a big finish while suspended upside down from a trapeze. She stops the show, quite literally: she earned a mid-act standing ovation on the night I attended.

The rest of the supporting cast is nearly as much fun to watch and listen to: Terrence Mann as a funny, blustery Charlemagne; Charlotte d’Amboise, Mr. Mann’s real-life wife, slinky and sly as Charlemagne’s scheming second wife, Fastrada; Rachel Bay Jones as the ordinary woman with whom Pippin finds happiness. In fact, the weakest performance may well be the man at the center of the show: Matthew James Thomas sings beautifully as Pippin and looks beautiful without his shirt on, but he appears to lack the charisma of a leading man—or the acting chops to stay in character and vamp his way through Ms. Martin’s thunderous applause.

Of course, it may also be a conscious choice by Mr. Thomas, who went conspicuously un-Tony nonimated, to seem a little vacant as he plays Pippin; the character, too, is lost and unsure of his role. (Breaking character, however, is inexcusable.) Indeed, Pippin’s sweet, slightly sad and a little bit profound lesson is that sometimes the best way to be happy is to stop trying to be special. That while a young man searches for a way to make his mark on the world, a wiser man knows how to be happy with what he has. Fortunately for us, Ms. Paulus has mounted an extraordinary argument for the ordinary.

THE MEMORY SHOW, a two-woman musical about a mother suffering from  Alzheimer’s Disease, turns out, alas, to be merely ordinary.

It’s too bad, because it opens so sharply. Catherine Cox, as the mother, is alone in an exam room, clad in a paper gown, singing a funny, angry song called “Who’s the President of the United States,” about the indignities of illness and medical treatment, including the insipid questions neurologists often ask. The twist at its end is that she cannot, in fact, name the president. She’s not well. And so her daughter moves back home to care for her.

The mostly sung-through show opened last night at the Duke on 42nd Street in a Transport Group production. Written by Sara Cooper, with music by Zach Redler and directed by Joe Calarco, it tracks the relationship between these two women as the mom gets sicker and the daughter tries to understand their complicated history. Leslie Kritzer plays the daughter, and she is the show’s attraction: she gives her thinly drawn role some warmth and humanity, and she has a lovely singing voice.

But the score, as is so often the case with contemporary musical theater, is atmospheric and indistinct, the major plot revelation is unsurprising, and the relationship between the two is never particularly interesting or compelling. (It’s also tough, after two seasons that included two productions of The Other Place, to impress with a show about a woman losing her mind.) The Memory Show isn’t an unpleasant evening, but it’s not a memorable one.

editorial@observer.com