Intimate 'Pippin' at Garden Theatre invokes the past and present
I’ll say this about Pippin, the 1972 Broadway musical currently receiving its third London revival within nine years, it gets stranger with every viewing. I’m too young (albeit not by much) to have seen Bob Fosse’s original production, though I vividly recall the commercial that gave us a minute of the show for free and made history as the first musical to do so. If you wanted to see the other 119 minutes, you had to head to the Imperial Theatre.
And lo and behold the music from that fabled come-on surfaces during Steven Dexter’s new chamber production at the Garden Theatre at south London’s Eagle pub like a sort of treasured relic from a vanished past: we hear it as if coming across an all-but-forgotten LP.
Stephen Schwartz’s storied score is otherwise in the hands of a hard-working cast of six, accompanied by musical director Michael Bradley on keyboards, who have to try and make sense of a piece that conjoins bits of Hamlet, Candide and, in this iteration, a helluva lot of Hair – as makes sense, come to think of it, given that Schwartz and book writer Roger O Hirson would have been collaborating on Pippin in an immediate post-Hair climate: it’s not a huge leap between such lyrics as “Pippin, think about the sun,” and the celebratory “Good Morning Starshine” from that earlier title.
Pippin is catnip to directors who either want to deconstruct it, as did Diane Paulus in her revelatory Broadway revival from 2013 (Paulus having not long before revived Hair), or freight it with a concept – the high-tech landscape of the bizarre Menier Chocolate Factory appropriation of the show in 2011 – that the material simply can’t support. Dexter and his choreographer, Nick Winston, have chipped away at the show so that it runs 105 minutes without an interval and doubles up certain parts: Fastrada and the life-affirming Bertha are both played by Joanne Clifton, who relishes every opportunity to play directly to the house. That audience, numbering 50 or so, are seated either side of a canopied playing area whose openness to the ever-variable London weather may well prove testing to the more scantily clad performers as the run continues into October.
A motley crew arrayed in jeans, headbands, and tie-dyed shirts, this sextet constitutes a seemingly Hair-inspired tribe who have gathered to tell a “most mysterious and miraculous tale” that moves towards and away from the meta: at times, we’re aware of Pippin as a piece of theatre as it is being constructed in front of us, with Tsemaye Bob-Egbe’s commanding Leading Player doubling as a bossy stage manager, director, and prompter, as required. Elsewhere, the musical remains the sketchy snippet of history it always was, telling of a once-and-future king who happens to be Charlemagne’s first-born son alongside, on this evidence, a naturist given to musings about rambling rivers and the like. A physically limber Ryan Anderson brings to this challenging role - like Bobby in Company, Pippin is more acted upon than active – a reedy tenor and an odd American accent that tilts at times towards Brooklyn for no apparent reason.
Amid an unmiked cast (eureka!), the vocal standout is newcomer Tanisha-Mae Brown as Catherine, the widow who catches the heart of Pippin as he continues on his search for authenticity and fulfilment. (These days, he’d be deep in therapy.) His quest, one increasingly feels, is echoed by that of a show that seems ceaselessly embarked upon its own search for a greater meaning when most of us would be happy, to be honest, just to revel in Schwartz’s agelessly appealing score.
Pippin is running at Garden Theatre at the Eagle through 11 Oct.
Photo credit: Ryan Anderson as Pippin, center, and the cast of Pippin (Photo by Bonnie Britain Photography)