Pippin, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Godspell) and a book by Roger O. Hirson (Walking Happy) premiered on Broadway in 1972 and a year later on the West End. It has become a much-beloved regional production ever since, only notably resurfacing twice in recent years: in revamped modern form in Los Angeles in 2009, and opening just this week at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory as a yet still more modernised production, where the action takes place inside a video game. When a production requires such drastic reinvention, one has to wonder why. Pippin has all the markings of a good story: a parable loosely based on tales of the hunchback prince of Charlemagne, it is about a boy-prince who, as he grows into a man, embarks on a search for meaning. For extraordinary things. He has the curse of a dreamer, and it takes the whole show for him to realise just what might fulfil him. Of course, he only uncovers this truth under duress, when the players telling his story offer to burn him alive in the name of an exciting finale, offering the ultimate fulfilment of death. See, it’s a parable, but it’s also a black comedy, and these concepts should be universal, and shouldn’t feel dated – yet somehow it does.
Crinklecut Productions do their best. Pippin is traditionally told on stage by a group of players playing a group of players – very Shakespearean. The Leading Player (Benjamin Hoetjes) holds the floor and guides us, as well as guiding Pippin (Mitchell Lagos) himself, through the story of Pippin’s life. He promises excitement. He promises a great finale. And we follow along as Pippin leaves school and attempts to be a soldier (he’s not very good at that), attempts to be apathetic (he’s brilliant at that) and attempts to be part of a normal little family (he’s better at that than he thinks he is).
While it still feels a little dated, particularly in portrayal of Pippin’s frolicking sexual experimentation following a visit to grandmother Berthe (the genuinely entertaining Gaynor Tension), the evocative, simple beauty of the storytelling in this production comes just in moments: in Lagos’ throwaway looks, the surprising cadence and timbre of his speaking voice, and his perfect naïveté in signature number ‘Corner of the Sky’; in the way Pippin looks at Catherine (Aimee Timmins) when he finally recognises the world exists outside himself. Lagos is a promising young performer and Hoetjes, a consummate, confident mover, clearly rules the stage in both a manner fitting for the Leading Player and for someone with such broad entertainer’s skills.
The strongest moments, however, come more frequently from the supporting players, like Phil McIntosh’s buffed-up Louis and Zach Smith’s everything, particularly his unabashedly sweet portrayal of Catherine’s son, Theo. The ensemble number ‘Glory’ is particularly strong, if a little over-choreographed. Ensemble player Kat Hoyos, direct from the Melbourne and Sydney seasons of Hairspray, is a delight and woefully under-used.
This show is too playful to be poignant and too zany to be darkly clever, but when McIntosh and Smith are on stage that doesn’t matter. If it’s charming, rather than profound, is that a problem? Perhaps not. The show, like its star protagonist, dreams big. Pippin finds his answer in the end, and the next dreamer (young Theo) steps up to the beginning of the path every Fool in the Tarot deck of life must walk; the cycle continues.