Review By: Carly Fisher
No more appropriate song could reopen the Australian Musical Theatre industry after an eight month hiatus than the Pippin opening number ‘We’ve Got Magic To Do!’ In fact, seeing the razzle dazzle of this opening number and thinking about what those words mean in a 2020 context which has seen our entire industry totally shut down and overlooked, I couldn’t help but feel the symbolism of it all. Now that the theatre is back, we absolutely have magic to do, and the return of the Arts is just the beginning of that! It was the perfect way to return to musical theatre.
I am a big musical theatre fan, big enough that my Spotify wrap up listed both Show Tunes and Broadway in my top 5 categories...I know! Going 8 months+ without seeing a musical has definitely been more than just weird, it has been sad. So, despite the fact that walking into the Lyric theatre is now equivalent to traipsing through an LAX security line, and that we had to wear masks throughout the performance, being back felt right! It felt instantly exciting.
I want to preface this review by saying that this is my third time seeing Pippin - I was lucky to see the 2013 revival on Broadway, and then the national tour of this production of Pippin in Washington, D.C. Now, seeing that tour continue to Australia, I would be lying if I said I hadn’t been excited by the announcement earlier in the year that it was coming. I am also a big fan of Diane Paulus’ work and, as one of the more influential female directors on Broadway, and also as the Artistic Director of A.R.T, I do look up to her body of work and the feverish creativity that she unlocks in each of her productions. I mention all of this to say, though this musical definitely has its fans, and its haters, I walked into Thursday night’s opening aware of what was to come, thrilled to see it a third time, and definitely as a fan.
With that, Pippin is a musical that has always been about spectacle, and, perhaps luckily, less about the book. The story, which is made up of an existential crisis to find meaning and purpose in a life that should be extraordinary but seems to be falling flat, mixed with Middle Ages royal scandal and wars of religion, is unusual and, if I’m honest, not so great. The songs however, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, are largely great - there are at least three songs in my opinion that you’ll walk out of the theatre and find yourself singing for days to come - Magic to Do, Corner of the Sky and Simple Joys - and plenty of others that give each of the featured characters their moment to shine.
Ultimately though, the success of this particular production is the fusion of musical and circus that has turned this text into an exciting spectacle to behold. When Bob Fosse first directed Pippin, [it is said that] he said that he would have liked to add a circus element into the show if he could have. And with this, Paulus, who has directed the show since its revival inception at A.R.T. in 2012, went on to create the Pippin that we now see filling the Lyric Theatre 8 shows a week. On the back of creating a production with Cirque du Soleil also in 2012, it is easy to understand where her comfortability for the incredible trickery came and so we now have this remarkable, albeit busy, circus show throughout the performance as well. In the original 1972 production, where we now have a circus troupe, instead was a performance troupe, so the conversion made sense but added a huge amount of the ‘spectacular’ that we now see on stage.
Realistically, this is a smart show to come back on - the cast is large but not enormous and in a time when I imagine full cast rehearsals could have been tricky with Covid restrictions, this show features many numbers with a particular featured performer, ie. only a few numbers have every cast member on stage simultaneously. Whilst this is handy in Covid times, more importantly this is a clever feature of the show’s narrative.
We follow the titular character Pippin, performed by Ainsley Melham, who is a Prince on a quest for a more meaningful, more extraordinary life. Jaded by his father’s (the king, played by Simon Burke) attitude towards his subjects and determination to start wars against people of a different faith, Pippin has an almost socialist response to his own royal power and whilst we see him start out with a noble desire to serve amongst his people, we see quickly that he can’t quite hack it. The rest of the musical goes from this point and we watch on as each person in Pippin’s life in many ways complicates his journey and, in turn, how he delves into pursuit after pursuit to find the ultimate meaning of life. What he finds...well you have to go to see the ‘climax’ of the show to find that out, an enormous scene promised from the show’s opening through to the finale by the Leading Player.
Melham makes for a good Pippin. He plays the character’s arc from naive to satiated well and though I’m not sure that he has the vocal chops to carry this show 8 times a week, he definitely is pleasant to listen to. Ultimately, it is Leading Player, Gabrielle McClinton, a second main character, who steals the show. The production received much flack for bringing McClinton over from the US for her Australian debut in this role - the argument being that we have the local talent to pull into the spotlight. Whilst I in no way want to overlook the validity of the argument for support for local talents, I do think that McClinton, as the performer here, deserves every bit of praise for an exceptionally strong performance. She is immediately comfortable back (she played Leading Player both on Broadway as a replacement cast member and then on the US National Tour) in the skin of this character and gives every movement that she makes a sense of deliberate purpose, style and complete pizazz. It is a very busy stage at times and yet, you don’t take your eyes off her Fosse-esque performance in which each dance move, or even general placement on stage oozes style, swagger and that perfect Fosse mix of sharpness and flow.
Whilst McClinton certainly gets her moments of praise from the audience, none receive cheers as loud as local favourites Kerri-Anne Kennerley as Berthe and Simon Burke as Charlemagne (or King Charles). Allow me to start with Burke...I have, over just the last few years alone, seen Burke on many a Sydney stage, large and small, and I have yet to see him excel in a role to the extent that he does as Charlemagne. He is captivating! Hilarious, camp and perfectly bewildered by his family, his kingship and his role in this civilisation, Burke’s performance is a triumph. Of the three men I have seen take this role on so far, Burke’s portrayal, without question, takes the cake. It may be a supporting role but Burke has found a way for me to keep thinking about him well after the final curtain drops.
Kerri-Anne Kennerley...welcome back to the stage! The audience could not have been more excited to support such an Australian media icon in this role and in turn, Kennerley takes on Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother, absolutely in her stride. Paulus’ directorial creativity shines in her approach to Berthe, where you could have simply a concerned and loving grandmother as Berthe’s song begins with, instead Paulus has had each of her Berthe’s swinging a top a trapeze, in the arms of a well muscled man in very short shorts. And let me tell you, the audience absolutely eats it up! It was fantastic to see Kennerley take on this challenge - I don’t know if it was that the audience felt a sense of nostalgia with her being in the limelight or just an appreciation for her genuine sense of an Aussie ‘can do’ attitude. Whatever it is, she soars...literally.
Vocally, for me it is Lucy Maunder as Catherine who shines the brightest. Maunder has given Catherine that wonderful mix of charisma, humour and heartbreaking honesty that makes this role perhaps even more interesting than it was initially written to be. I loved this character from the first time I saw the show - I think that there could be a Pippin sequel just on her - and was thrilled to see her taken into the very capable hands of Lucy Maunder. Others in the supporting roles included Euan Doidge as a wonderfully, perhaps overly camp Lewis (Pippin’s brother), who was a certain crowd pleaser, and Leslie Bell as Fastrada (Pippin’s step mother) who gave her character the perfect amount of cunning, wit, high kicks and vanity.
But turn enough pages in your program and you’ll find the real stars of the show - the ensemble and particularly, the acrobatic team. I do wish that there had been a little more integration between the Acrobats and the Players (ensemble) as I felt it was quite clear to see where one group ended and another began, but, overlooking this, what an incredibly strong team this is! Choreographer, Chet Walker and Circus Creator, Gypsy Snider (both obviously infinitely talented) have coached this team into a performance filled with such style, sharpness and deliberation that for all those who enjoy dance and movement, this is a show to see! The precision of each of the Players and Acrobats is absolutely perfect and I found myself consistently impressed by this group in song after song after song. Special mentions to William Meager and Zoe Marshall from the acrobatic team and Chaska Halliday from the Players - whilst each and every one of the groups was mesmerising to watch, something about the performance given by these three just popped even more off the stage. Congratulations to each of the Players and Acrobats - in a show with fantastic lead and supporting actors, I still think that this show belongs to you.
Finally I want to acknowledge the brilliant work of Dominique Lemieux, the costume designer. I absolutely love the costumes in this show - particularly Fastrada’s and the ensemble’s - they are vibrant with a deliberate and very well executed mix of circus and function.
This show is not going to appeal to everyone - unfortunately, the book, whilst creative, prohibits that. However, if you’re keen to see some excellent choreography and circus pizazz, want a good laugh again, or simply, if you’re just READY to get back to the theatre, I would say, grab a ticket. Overlook the strange story and instead enjoy each moment for what it is, particularly the big dance numbers led by the Leading Player.
This is Sydney’s return to musical theatre...welcome back everyone, we have lots to catch up on and importantly, magic to do!
Photo Credit Brian Geach and David Hooley