Music and Lyrics: Stephen Schwartz
Book: Roger O. Hirson
Director: Steven Dexter
Pippin is an odd beast. Putatively the (largely fictional) story of the son of Dark Ages monarch Charlemagne, its origins as a 1972 student musical became subsumed in Bob Fosse’s Broadway pizazz.
The framing device, in which a troupe of performers retell Pippin’s tale, has seen subsequent revivals play up that aspect, culminating in 2013’s Broadway revival by director Diane Paulus, which set the whole story in a grand scale cirque spectacular.
You can’t go much further in the completely opposite direction in the Garden Theatre’s pared down version, which director Steven Dexter turns into a Covid-compliant bubble of just six cast members. Within the Garden’s open air (but canopied) traverse staging, Dexter and designer David Shields set these players in the world of 1960s hippies, adding a layer of authenticity to Schwartz’s melodies (played with giddy joy by musical director Michael Bradley).
And it has to be said that the small venue and diminished cast work in the musical’s favour. In a realm where it is impossible to avoid eye contact with the cast, the boundary between audience and performer is more akin to those one might have experienced with a travelling troupe of Mediaeval mummers, performing in whatever inn courtyard they could.
Such a troupe would not, however, been able to call upon the choreographic talents of Nick Winston, who gets the best of his talented ensemble. A particular highlight is a thrilling Act II pas de deux between Ryan Anderson’s Pippin and Tsemaye Bob-Egbe as the seductive, Mephistophelean Leading Player.
Joanne Clifton – whose extensive ballroom dancing background culminated in lifting the Strictly Come Dancing glitterball in 2016 – similarly shines with Winston’s choreography. In the dual roles of Pippin’s mother and grandmother, though, she also displays a ferocious ability for character comedy, stealing the show on several occasions and displaying her most well-rounded and effective performance since making the permanent switch to musical theatre.
As Schwartz’s musical progresses and Pippin tries, unsuccessfully, to fit in somewhere, anywhere, Roger O. Hirson’s book sometimes threatens to turn the character into Hamlet with a good line in jazz squares. Under Dexter and Winston’s eyes, though, the ensemble keep everything light and highly enjoyable.
Even the ending, in which the players try to persuade Pippin to take his own life, veers towards the entertaining rather than letting it get overtaken by the darkness at the heart of the script. While it robs the finale of a little of its power, it’s a choice that provides a higher level of entertainment than other revivals that allow such allegory to subsume the entire production.
Given the paucity of theatre in London at the moment, the Garden Theatre could have put on anything and secured the sort of sell-out audiences that Pippin has already achieved. That it does so with a production that invigorates a classic musical with such flair (and such flares) is a bonus.
Continues until October 11