Monday, December 31, 2012

Back to the 70s: Pippin and Annie

Patina Miller as Leading Player in Pippin
Pippin opened on Broadway in the fall of 1972, toward the end of what was unmistakably the Year of Bob Fosse. His film of Cabaret rethought the syntax of the movie musical, both stylistically (the numbers were Brechtian commentaries on theme, character and historical setting rather than expressions of emotion) and visually (he was the first director of film musicals to employ editing as a rhythmic element). On television he collaborated with his Cabaret star, Liza Minnelli, on an inventive, highly theatrical one-woman revue called Liza with a ‘Z’. And he returned to Broadway, where he’d received his training as a choreographer and then as a director, with Pippin. I saw it a few months after graduating from college and I recall it as the first truly schizoid experience I ever had at the theatre. The staging was mesmerizing, exactly the feat of wizardry that the opening number, “Magic to Do,” set the audience up to expect, but the material itself – Roger O. Hirson’s book and Stephen Schwartz’s songs – was threadbare. And since Fosse’s trademark theme, which he imposed on everything he worked on, was the discrepancy between the razzle-dazzle surface and the shoddy, corrupt underneath, the show seemed constantly to be commenting on its own inadequacies, reminding us that what we were watching was merely trompe l’oeil executed by a seasoned (and cynical) magician. It was a hell of a spectacle, and it wasn’t much fun.

It still isn’t, though Diane Paulus’s fortieth-anniversary production at American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, which aspires to a New York move next season, is full of pleasant distractions, including Chet Walker’s Fosse-inspired choreography, which is executed expertly by a talented ensemble. Pippin is set in the Middle Ages – the main character (played by Matthew James Thomas) is the son of the French king Charlemagne (Terrence Mann) – but it’s really a hippie coming-of-age musical in which the prince, searching for himself (in the relentlessly banal terms of Schwartz’s lyrics, looking for his “corner of the sky”), essays a variety of approaches to life, becoming a warrior, a hedonist, a revolutionary and a powermonger before realizing that a simple country existence with a loving wife and a child brings him the only true satisfaction. Tempting Pippin is the Leading Player – the role that made Ben Vereen a star, here taken by Patina Miller. This character operates like a demonic variation on El Gallo in The Fantasticks, who provides the young lovers with a taste of the world before restoring them to each other. The Leading Player blinds Pippin with superficial pleasures that the musical presents as sleight-of-hand spectacles. Clearly he’s also a retread of the Master of Ceremonies from Cabaret, without, alas, the benefit of a libretto of substance or those great Kander-Ebb songs.

Charlotte d'Amboise & Matthew James Thomas  
Paulus is capable when it comes to hippie musicals: she did a good job with Hair a couple of seasons back, though she couldn’t sustain the virtues of the production through the troublesome second act. (I’m not sure anyone can.) And though I don’t like Pippin, frankly I’d rather see her play around with a musical I don’t care about than “improve” one that doesn’t need fixing, like Porgy and Bess. Her contribution to Pippin is a circus concept, though the true mover and shaker of this production is Gypsy Snider of the Montreal company Les 7 Doigts de la Main, who has interpolated a series of acrobatic effects that are always thrilling, often sexy and occasionally hilarious.

The cast sings and dances skillfully, though except for Charlotte d’Amboise as Pippin’s scheming stepmother, Fastrada, and Andrew Cekala as Pippin’s stepson Theo (whose a cappella reprise of the chorus of “Corner of the Sky” is one of the show’s highlights), they try too hard. There’s something Vegas-y about the performances, especially Miller’s and Mann’s, that intensifies the show’s rather smug ironic tone and makes the greeting-card-jingle sentimentality of the songs like “Corner of the Sky” (“Cats fit in the window sill / Children fit in the snow”), “No Time at All,” “Morning Glow” and “Love Song” even phonier than it already is. As Pippin’s life-embracing grandma Berthe, Andrea Martin gets to sing “No Time at All,” and though she’s not much of a singer, she’s certainly game – she even gets up on a swing with one of the trapeze artists. But you may want to look away when she goes for broke in the last chorus; a lifelong funny girl like Martin shouldn’t be asked to wring tears from the crowd. On the other hand, the second-act duet between Thomas and Miller, “On the Right Track,” has a show-biz vividness that doesn’t feel like it’s working you over.

In a way “Morning Glow,” which closes the first act, is the embodiment of the musical’s nutty duality. It’s one of those sappy, Rod McKuen-ish lyrics, full of trite images of nature’s splendor, but the dramatic situation is Pippin’s stabbing his tyrant father so he can take over his throne. Perhaps it’s best not to think too hard about the musical and just concentrate on the acrobats.

Katie Finneran, Lilla Crawford & Anthony Warlow

Annie began its six-year Broadway run in 1977, half a decade after Pippin, and it seemed to tour forever. I never saw it, though based on the descriptions I’ve heard of the original staging, I wish I had. My introduction to the musical was John Huston’s unfortunate 1982 movie version; it’s hard to imagine a more bizarre mismatch of director and material. The director of the current New York revival is James Lapine, and he’s an odd choice too. The show has an underwritten book (by Thomas Meehan) – virtually nothing happens after intermission – but a good half of the Charles Strouse-Martin Charnin score is tuneful and the subject matter (from Harold Gray’s Depression-era comic strip, Little Orphan Annie), the unlikely pairing of a resilient orphan and a preoccupied Manhattan millionaire named Daddy Warbucks, offers considerable charm. But you have to believe in it, and Lapine doesn’t seem to. The production has a Disneyfied arcade look; David Korins’s sets don’t draw you in, and neither does most of the staging. The choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler is fine but the sets keep marginalizing it; “It’s the Hard Knock Life,” the orphans’ lament, a terrific song that ought to be a solid sender in any version, is relegated to stage left instead of taking over the whole stage as it certainly should. The numbers that come off best are “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here,” which Annie sings with Warbucks’s secretary Grace Farrell (Brynn O’Malley) and a chorus of domestics, and the radio number, “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” – the ones in which the choreography doesn’t seem to be battling the d├ęcor.

I saw Annie when it was still in previews, and Lilla Crawford, who plays the title role, wasn’t in it; her understudy, Taylor Richardson, was delightful. Of the adult performers, the Australian Anthony Warlow as Warbucks is easily the best. Neither of the supporting villains, Clarke Thorell as Rooster and J. Elaine Marcos as Lily, seems to be quite right (though I was enthusiastic about Thorell in the Encores! Gentlemen Prefer Blondes last spring), and Katie Finneran is seriously miscast as Miss Hannigan, the director of the orphanage and Annie’s main adversary. Hannigan is a role for a comic diva like Carol Burnett, who was the best thing about Huston’s movie. Finneran knows how to be funny, as she proved in her scene-stealing (and Tony-winning) “A Fact Can Be a Beautiful Thing” number with Sean Hayes in Promises, Promises, but she isn’t the kind of wild comedienne the role of Hannigan needs. She comes across as too mean and wrecks the tone of her scenes (and of her big number, “Little Girls”). The production is efficient but it has a plastic heart.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny ReviewThe Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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