I've long been obsessed with Pippin, the 1972 musical that launched Stephen Schwartz's career as a Broadway composer and supreme melodist. “Corner of the Sky”, the song in which the title character poetically sets out the journey towards finding purpose, meaning and contentment in his life that the show then goes on to show his pursuit of, may just be my single favourite song from any musical ever. But all too often productions, of which I’ve seen many, fail to reconcile its vaudevillian, revue-like tone with its darker dramatic undercurrents.
The last misguided London revival at the Menier in 2011 sought to turn its narrative into a giant futuristic computer game being played out in Pippin's head. The more thrillingly visceral 2013 Broadway revival turned it into a giant circus spectacle, as if it was a modern precursor to Barnum (itself coincidentally recently revived at the Menier).
But now a new production, transferring from the fast-rising Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester (whose previous recent London transfers also include Hair that came to the Vaults and Yank! that came to the Charing Cross Theatre), is easily the most successful I've yet seen in Britain.
The production pays explicit (and honourable) homage to the show's original director/choreographer Bob Fosse, with William Whelton's choreography recreating many of his signature angular moves and employing his classic props like hats, canes and ostrich feathered fans. It also dazzlingly recreates the Manson Trio directly from Fosse's choreography, with its own echo of the Rich Man's Frug scene in the Fosse-choreographed Sweet Charity.
Movement and dance are embedded in this show's DNA, and Whelton, his directing partner Jonathan O'Boyle and their stunning ensemble of singer/dancers give it spectacular life. It is also stunningly designed and costumed by Maeve Black to spring many playful surprises.
But as fun as the show is, it is also piercingly dark, too, as its hero deals with what is patently a depressive illness - and is advised on how to deal with it by his grandmother, who also openly admits to it. "When the drearies do attack/ And a siege of the sads begins," she sings; and then says, "I drop these regal shoulders back/ And lift this noble chins," determining that it's time to start living, "time to take a little from this world we're given/ Time to take time, for spring will turn to fall/ In just no time at all." (One of the poignant sadnesses of this production is that it lost one of its young cast members Olivia Faulkner, between the Manchester run and this transfer, who was just 19. The producers have lovingly included her biography in the programme as a tribute to her, and there's an ad, too, for the Olivia Faulkner Trust, created by her family to raise awareness of mental illness in the dance and musical theatre industry).
As such, it is also - beneath its vaudevillian surface - a profound, and profoundly serious, musical. Our hero's complicated unravelling of the tensions he's struggling with are brought to life with tender vulnerability (and rich vocal delivery) by Jonathan Carlton, while Genevieve Nicole, as the voice of the strident black dog on his shoulder, is both glamorous and terrifying as tries to play with his mind. There's a neat doubling up of both Pippin's mother and grandmother by Mairi Barclay, and a hilariously vain Bradley Judge as his half-brother Lewis.
While I loved the 2013 Broadway revival for its extraordinary circus thrills, this unmissable production has even more integrity and dramatic conviction.
Photos courtesy Pamela Raith