The Sydney Lyric Theatre welcomed a full house for opening night of their sensational new production of Pippin. The Sentinel’s arts and entertainment editor Rita Bratovich was among the harlequin-masked attendees.
The air in the Sydney Lyric Theatre on opening night was electric moments before the curtain lifted to reveal the astonishing set of its latest production. The audience, comprised of celebrities, media, VIPs and devoted theatre-lovers, has been starved for big, live entertainment, and Pippin was about to serve up a sumptuous feast.
Written in 1972, Pippin is Stephen Schwartz’s second major musical, coming just after Godspell (1971) and well before Wicked (2003). (He has, of course, many more credits to his name apart from those three, including a bucket-load of songs for Disney.) Pippin has a lot of the musical sensibility of the 1970s: the songs are functional, with prosaic lyrics sung in repartee. There aren’t really any tunes you walk out humming but within the context of the musical, all the numbers work really well.
The book is by Roger O. Hirson in collaboration with legendary choreographer, Bob Fosse, whose jazz-hand fingerprints are all over it. In the current Sydney production, as with many others before it, much of Fosse’s original dance-design has been retained and there is a wafting scent of Cabaret, Chicago and Sweet Charity in the routines. Fosse’s influence is also present in the self-referential, meta storytelling.
Two worlds occupy the same space in Pippin. There is the that of the circus troupe, led by the unnamed vixen ringleader known only as Leading Player. Gabrielle McLinton, who performed the role on Broadway, brings her sassy energy and extraordinary voice to the Sydney production. Her troupe consists of astounding acrobats and artists, whose feats are genuinely spectacular, not just window dressing . They also add a lot of the nudge/wink humour with some cliched illusions and gags.
The other world is that of Pippin’s. Pippin, played with scintillating vim by Ainsley Melham, is very loosely based on the historical figure, Pepin the Hunchback, eldest son of Charlemagne, Medieval king of lots of territory during the 700s. There was a real historical battle with Visigoths but that’s about as close as we get to real events.
Simon Burke channels his best John Lithgow in a panto-style portrayal of Charlemagne (Charles, as he is called here). Charles’ other son, Lewis, is a himbo and a mamma’s boy, played with a touch of camp by Euan Doidge. His mamma is Charles’ spicy, conniving second wife, Fastrada, played with relish by Leslie Bell.
If not for the immense collective talent on stage, Kerri-Anne Kennerley would threaten to steal the show. Her appearances as Berthe, Pippin’s grandma, finds her in fine voice and even finer physical form.
Lucy Maunder is Catherine, Pippin’s love interest and steadying keel in the second half. She has some great comic moments and a big number. Her son, Theo, is played by four alternating young actors. In this production it was Ryan Yeates, who has proven himself already in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Caroline, or Change, and, though he has a smaller part in Pippin, he makes an impression.
The narrative revolves around Pippin who can’t get no satisfaction. In Act 1 he tries war and patricide but it brings him no joy. What it does provide is lots of action and machinations. In Act 2, things slow down a lot as Pippin surrenders to domestic bliss, or at least contentment.
As far as musicals go, Pippin doesn’t have an especially engaging story or any breakout songs. It relies a lot on performance and production, and scores highly on both. The sets and costumes are stunning, the cast is stellar, the humour lands with both feet and there is a dazzling amount of wow factor.
This is the perfect way to return to the theatre.
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