Saturday, April 27, 2013

Raves to Regrets Greet Pippin’s Return to Broadway: Can Circus Save an Old Third Rate Musical in Revival?

Once again, with the return of Pippin to Broadway, the issue of circus merging with “theatre” (quality notwithstanding) captures my skeptical attention. Recent efforts along the Great White Way to incorporate acrobatics and aerial stunts in singing and dancing shows began with the abysmally panned Banana Shpeel from a then smugly over-confident Cirque du Soleil. Then came Spiderman, which utilizes rigging to facilitate flight sequences (really not a circus musical at all but something more like Peter Pan) – it is doing well. After that, Cirque’s thematically reaching (if not mind-grinding) Zarkana, built to last at Radio City Music Hall for ten summers (some critics loved the acts, but were left yawning over the Zazrkana’s obtuse theatrical allusions), but last it did not, not beyond two mediocre seasons.

And now, Pippin’s campaign to repeat its winning box office of 1972, that original staging largely dismissed by the critics for a stupidly naive book. I had the misfortune of paying for a ticket to the show near the end of its run, and I sat there wondering, can Broadway really be this bad?  One of the worst musicals I’d ever seen.

But now, instead of a band of hippie gypsies dancing up a Bob Fosse storm to save the world, flower power style, this new Pippin gives us a tent full of circus performers, directed by Gypsy Snyder (from the original Pickle Family Circus), and now, as was the case with Zarkana, they’re talking up the great circus elements. And they’re — some of them — talking down a hackneyed libretto nearly buried alive under the big top trimmings.  Some say the dancers can't compare to the tumblers.  Go, circus!

To be sure, this Pippin has won some raves, among them USA declaring it “the best musical of the season.” The doubters focus on our central issue — the usually troubling combination of circus and stage, and how mildly frustrating, despite sawdust thrills, that it can be to sit through.

Ben Brantley in the New York Times more or less echoed a similar ambivalence from theatre critic Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal, the latter summing up: “On occasion, there’s fun to be had from this Pippin ... But I went home feeling as though I’d been yelled at for 2-1/2 hours.”

The better reviews promise a rich world of visual entertainment. The intriguing question, particular to this show, may be: Will the Times Square consumers, who tend to reach the ticket windows with theatre mind sets, really wish to spend an evening inside a Broadway playhouse watching circus acts? They apparently did not at the Radio City Music Hall. And they most certainly did not at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.

This will be an interesting story to follow. If we are to believe the raves, maybe, just maybe they’ve at last merged circus and “theatre” in a way that will capture the public's fancy and keep the ticket windows humming for a long long time. The best Broadway revivals rarely last more than a couple of seasons. Pippin could prove itself worthy of that mark, exceed it, or (my guess) slowly but surely peter out under the weight of its overwrought irrelevance to a neighborhood not friendly to Barnum & Bailey — even to the sainted Cirque du Soleil.

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