THERE ARE PEOPLE in this world who make a living out of stereotypes and labels. Many of us feel more secure about things when we can hang labels on them--preppie, jock, pre-med and so on. Many people pooh-pooh musicals by dubbing them escapist" and "silly." But Pippin, while providing a pleasant diversion from blizzards and bombastic politicos, stands out from cliched musicals with its own resilience. Much more than a fantasy, Pippin deals with a very central and poignant dilemma in our lives--our existence, and what the hell to do with it.
From the moment the curtain rises, it is obvious why director Bob Fosse's interpretation of this 1972 hit musical comedy won five Tony awards. Fosse (Lenny, the screen versions of Cabaret, Damn Yankees, and more) directs a flawless set of Broadway dramatists; the choreography is tight, the vocals searing, and the action both amusing and touching. This production is comical, profound and very sexy--quite a unique combination of qualities for any stage production.
Pippin is the story of Charlemagne and his two sons, Pippin and Louis. Louis is his mother Fastrada's dearest, strong and mighty in battle, but very dumb. Pippin is his father's favorite--educated, benevolent, unlike his brother. Michael Rupert's Pippin, with his dingledodly, flaky normality, steals the crowd's empathy from his brother. While Louis sends ripples through his biceps, Pippin catechizes the dilemmas of his life--something most theater buffs can better relate to.
Pippin proves to be a very relevant story for any college student. After finishing his education, Pippin doesn't know what to do with his life. While Louis flaunts his shiny new armor and jabs his sword at the air, Pippin sits cross-legged on the stage, pondering where fate will lead him.
King Charles, a big barrel of a king and self-acclaimed "giant in the bedroom," snorts that his son need not do anything--Pippin is much too intelligent to be a soldier. "But Louis is such a good boy," snickers Fastrada, "so considerate and brave."
Pippin eventually decides to match his brother's bravado and joins his father's army. He cannot seem to take army life any more seriously than a game of Risk, and becomes deeply disillusioned when he sees his father and his men look forward to the Visigoth war. To top off the victory, his father announces, "We can rape the women!" Pippin is left somewhat aghast.
It all seems a bit much to bear until Pippin's grandmother, Berthe, provides the necessary comic relief. Berthe, played brilliantly by Thelam Carpenter, is a vivacious, sassy old lady who gets up to sing her jazzy number after excoriating the men's war games. "Men and their wars! Sometimes I think men raise flags when they can't get anything else up."
IT IS THIS INTERPLAY of tension and relief that saves Pippin time after time just after the viewer thinks the players have gone too far. The magic of Pippin is that--while confronting you with war, sex, disillusionment, love and politics--the play has the perspective to remind its audience that, "after all, this is only a musical comedy."
It is Berthe who rings in the theme of the story. "No Time At All" is a spicy song, sung on the shoulders of "Berthe's Boys," a coterie of male dancers. A giant scroll bearing the lyrics is dropped from the roof of the theater, and Berthe waves briskly to the crowd, "Sing along now, one more time":
It's time to start livin'
Time to take a little from the world we're givin'
Time to take time
For spring will turn to fall
In just no time at all
Sure enough, the staid and stodgy crowd sang along--coat-and-tied respectables and young hipsters alike. The kind of involvement and interest Pippin demands from its audience is a credit to the play's success.