Cirque de Paulus Featuring The Leading Player...Oh, and Pippin

As a die hard Paulusian whom is well aware that she is divinely brilliant amongst us mortals, I am usually one of the first people to declare my girl love for her about eight or ten times a day. Rest assured, she is on my list of people I want to have lunch with and talk about theater. She is seated in-between Jason Robert Brown and Lily Rabe and orders salmon. Why does she order salmon in my head? I don't care; she's Diane Paulus and I don't question her.

Having said that...man, I question a lot of things about her revival of Pippin, now open at the Music Box Theater. I was stunned at intermission and then the curtain drop when I realized that her beloved and already critically-acclaimed production, straight out of A.R.T in Massachusetts, was not clicking with me. I mean, it is Pippin, Stephen Schwartz's best score and its first revival in 40 years, matching Paulus' circus/cirque de soleil vision. How could that not be the best production of Pippin ever?

On the one hand, it is one of the most ambitious and visually dazzling productions I have ever seen mounted on a stage. All that trapeze work and flying make you want to buy one of those Groupon deals that you get about five times an hour. The ensemble work that stage like they own it and do flips and juggle and balance and skate and tumble and climb and slide down poles in a non-stripper way. Kick ass bitches putting out one hell of a show that will entertain audiences, day-in and day-out. But yeah...where's the Pippin?

Moving on, most Schwartz-scored shows are dominated by the score and the book and/or direction are typically an afterthought. Paulus' Pippin is direction first and book/music later. That's certainly a commendable feat...just because Schwartz's scores are first-rate, that doesn't mean the rest of the production needs to step aside in favor of that. And Pippin is in a special class where the show's "make-or-break" is its direction. As a result, the production could go a number of ways and be utterly horrible or utterly amazing. So, of course, Paulus should be praised again for not exactly misfiring. But on the other hand, when I say "Pippin," what I really mean is "Cirque de Paulus" with a book and a score that slightly evokes Pippin.

However, my biggest of the big issues with the show have nothing to do with Paulus. Nope, they pertain to the performances from the two leads.

Patina Miller's gender-reinterpreted Leading Player may as well have been the lead of the show. In fact, she has been mostly getting leading lady billing given that her presence and stage time is on par with "Emcee in Cabaret" levels. Fine, all well and good - when the Leading Player is wearing a scantily clad outfit and cracking a whip a top a lion's cage, the last thing you are thinking is, "this is a man's role; I miss Ben Vereen." Another three points for Paulus for even thinking of that gender-swap in the first place, which could have easily gone to the show-stopping Joshua Henry, a slightly older Brandon Victor Dixon or maybe even Wallace Smith (whom played the Leading Player in a regional production this past Fall).

And Patina is a stunningly beautiful person. Her androgynous costuming and styling, courtesy of Dominique Lemieux, is perfect - she looks eye-catching and sexy to the max. I'll admit that when the girl is on, she is ON as the in-control, attitude serving ringmaster of Pippin. But her vocals strained way too much the performance I saw her and her acting verged on maniacal about halfway through the second act. As far as the former...well, I know the role is rigorous and demanding and girl deserves credit for attempting trapeze work without a harness and dancing her ass off, but if she can't sing the part competently eight times a week? Not good.

Matthew James Thomas' Pippin is more or less the same problem. For being the title character and for the show revolving all about him, I found him the least compelling and notable aspect of the show. Oh sure; he fills out his open-weave sweater wonderfully, but to say that he went flat on the final note of "Corner of the Sky," one of the most scaled-down (and rightfully so) numbers of the production, would be an understatement. And that was one of his better songs. For all the time he is on stage, I can't recall a single Eff Yeah MJT moment. If Pippin is unmemorable and vocally not up to task...uh oh.

I guess that brings me right back to Paulus...with an out-of-town run and months of rehearsing, she should have known her leads weren't hacking it. Why she did not replace them is beyond me. She knows how to garner consistent, fantastic performances from her casts - between Hair and Porgy and Bess, her performers garnered a combined six Tony nominations in total - which only makes Miller and Thomas' performances more baffling in their execution. Not helping their cases is the the supporting cast, specifically Terrence Mann and Andrea Martin playing Charlemagne and Berthe respectively, deliver two of the shows most high-impact and successful music numbers.

It's a "what came first - the chicken or the egg?" situation here. Did Paulus know her leads weren't top-notch, so in a last ditch effort, be all "okay, more flips, more fire, more death-defying tricks." Or is her direction so overwhelming that her leads, regardless of who is playing them, don't have a chance to emerge from the circus going on around them? Because if it is the former, then (1) I don't blame her and (2) she fools the audience night after night in obscuring that fact.

I guess what this is all leading up to is...Paulus' work is the single best aspect of the show and one of the most fully-realized spectacles of art and theatricality in the history of forever. And it is definitely the season's crowd-pleaser in a non-Disney Fairytale way, sure to send out many a happy audience. But the things that make Pippin "Pippin" - the beautiful score, the identifiable lead character looking for purpose, the existential overtones - were mitigated (or sacrificed entirely) en route to the end result. She put out a killer and enthralling show and I know I can be talked into loving that...but that show was everything, except Pippin.

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

No comments: