Sunday night was my daughter and I’s “forced-night-of-theatre-because-you-are-getting-old-and-we- won’t-have-these times-forever.” I have a season subscription to the local theatre that hosts all of the Broadway tours, and sometimes “Forced Theatre Night” is successful (such as when the show is something we want to see or have heard of vaguely), while other nights not nearly as much and I usually end up taking someone else.
It wasn’t always “Forced Theatre Night” – when she was younger, we saw a variety of shows-Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, Les Miserables, Chicago, Book of Mormon-based on her level of maturity (yes, you too can go from talking inanimate objects and fairytale creatures to sexy analyses of the hypocrisy of 1920’s America and a subversive take on organized religion in just a few short years!).
This month’s selection was a revival of Pippin. After hearing actress Tovah Feldshuh (Deana Monroe from The Walking Dead) discuss her role in Pippin on a radio program, I was entranced. I really knew nothing about this musical, but the concept was intriguing and her enthusiasm was infectious. I upgraded our seats because it seemed like it was going to be a great show.
When I shared the exciting news with my daughter, she gave me a typical teenage stare of skepticism and asked what the show was about.
“Well,” I replied, “it’s this meta sort of show about a play within a play-it’s about Pippin, who was the son of Charlemagne, but in history, he was really Pepin, and it shows the tale of his search for meaning in life-like he tries war, visiting his grandmother, and settling down; meanwhile, he’s really in a play about his own life.”
She simply stared at me.
“Oh! And it’s all done as a circus-like the play within the play is really a circus! That’s not how it originally was, but now it is, and the one on Broadway has that chick Deana from The Walking Dead! On a trapeze! She’s like, as old as your grandmother…and on a trapeze! And there’s Bob Fosse dancing, like you loved in Chicago!”
I was met with silence, and then “I can tell you I told you so if I hate it, right?”
I grudgingly agreed-how could anyone not be excited with that description?
After seeing the show Sunday night, I was a little off in some of my descriptions, so I could see why she was a little put out initially.
Pippin is a play within a play, set in a circus in the current revival, but the story of how Pippin tries to find meaning in his life was far more sentimental then I imagined.
The circus is run by the show’s Leading Player, or what is more commonly recognized as the Ringmaster. Sasha Allen (a finalist from Season 4 of The Voice) is glorious in this role, and commands the stage and the people on it. The supporting cast are acrobats, singers, trapeze artists, and dancers, and play a variety of roles, as Pippin struggles to figure out “what makes for an extraordinary life?”
Should he be a soldier like his half-brother Louis in his father’s fight against the Visigoths? Should he give into the temptations of the flesh and just, well, have a lot of sex to find fulfillment? (Truth be told, this number was a little weird-there’s a lot of acrobatic metaphors for sexy time from the circus performers, and at one point, Pippin is placed in a lion’s cage and “tamed” by the Leading Player, all with an eerie red light glowing across the entire stage.) Or should he simply live life to the fullest, as noted by his Grandmother Berthe (played by Adrianne Barbeau in this production. Seriously, if seeing a 70 year old scream queen and television’s Maude do feats of strength on a trapeze that people half her age couldn’t do, doesn’t motivate me to go the gym, I’m not sure what will.
Pippin eventually meets the lovely young widow Catherine, and her son Theo, and after some time with them, has to decide what makes for that extraordinary life-is it doing great things like taking over as king someday, or is it finding extraordinary in the ordinary?
While I will not spoil the ending, it’s kind of obvious which direction he takes. But the presentation of that decision is beautifully done-as a theatre major, I was totally geeking out over the heavy handed symbolism. And normally heavy handed symbolism is a bad thing, but given that this whole show was pretty metaphorical, it wasn’t at all out of place.
The show also had some other great moments and numbers, like a dance with exercise balls that made my daughter and I spend intermission create scenarios, in which we would go to our gym, slide across 6 balls on our stomachs, all while screaming “Pippin!” like a battle cry before falling on our faces, or completing a graceful front roll at the end. And the Bob Fosse modeled choreography was slinky, disarming, and as mildly inappropriate as the dancing in the original production. Additionally, any show that focuses mainly on existential concepts that can incorporate the line “that’s not a duck, dumbass!” is a winner in my book.
Pippin, despite the initial skepticism, got an enthusiastic and positive review from me and my child. And that made me think about my own extraordinary life-I had wanted to be a theatre director in my younger years, and I had the opportunity to do so. Instead, I took the more ordinary path and made things extraordinary. I may not be a Broadway director, but I am instilling a love for the arts in my child that she can use to go on to her own extraordinary life. And that’s far more valuable to me than any sound of an audience’s applause.