What a way to woo an audience! Pippin may have one of musical theatre’s most irresistible opening numbers. “Join us, leave your field to flower,” beckon a troupe of travelling players in Magic to Do, a paean to escapist performance which promises us a miraculous night of illusions, intrigue, sex and comedy. What better for theatre-hungry audiences coming out of lockdown?
That the plot extends to patricide, self-immolation, holy war and an interlude with a duck is Pippin’s principal problem. The original 1972 production, directed by Bob Fosse, wove Stephen Schwartz’s beautifully breezy, joyous and wistful songs into a bizarre medieval picaresque with an often plodding book by Roger O Hirson and a hero with a tiresome existential crisis. It threw everything at the audience: razzle-dazzle Fosse choreography, magic tricks, commedia dell’arte clowning, and a commentary on war that attempts to bridge battling Visigoths and Vietnam. It was Hair meets Camelot en route to Chicago. With, as they say, mixed results.
But in a newly erected open-air theatre behind a south London bar, a plucky cast of six – and musical director Michael Bradley on keyboard – attempt to iron out Pippin’s tonal problems. There’s no chain mail in David Shields’ flower-powered design, which has a traverse stage flanked by pot plants and outfits that feature a tambourine crown, tie-dye, flares, fringing and dog tags. This is Haight-Ashbury rather than the Holy Roman Empire.
Peace symbols decorate the jeans of Pippin, introspective son of Charlemagne, who embarks on a quest for a corner of the sky and, heck, the meaning of life, guided by the mysterious players. Nick Winston’s choreography emphasises their hold on Pippin (Ryan Anderson), pulling his strings or drawing him towards them like a moth to a flame. Tsemaye Bob-Egbe has power and poise as the lead player but this cult’s collective malevolence, and the idea that they are his inner demons, never unnerves as it should.
However, this cast knows how to have fun and work an up-close crowd. Strictly dancer Joanne Clifton leads the audience in a singsong chorus of No Time at All, while making comically clear the verses are for her alone. Clifton doubles the roles of Pippin’s scheming stepmother and his gyrating granny with aplomb. Harry Francis is a hoot as his gung-ho half-brother.
How do you solve a problem like Pippin himself? If only Steven Dexter’s production mocked the earnest, restlessly unsatisfied hero a little more. His postcoital complaint that “nothing’s changed” after an orgy would work better if it raised a snigger – although that scene is more affecting and inclusive than Ben Vereen’s athletic conquests in the original 1972 staging.
The musical’s consideration of how to remake society, when Pippin becomes king, has always felt thin but here ends up shortchanging the hippy revolution. While the small scale of the production helps bring focus to a musical that is often unwieldy on a larger stage, it also flattens a pivotal late scene in which the spectacle is stripped of artifice.
If Pippin’s long-running Broadway success still baffles some, Dexter’s production makes a case for this balmy, often barmy, tale in a time of crisis. Theatre is fighting to deliver its magical USP as we, like the wandering hero, attempt to live in the moment and revel in normal life when we can.
Pippin is at the Garden theatre at the Eagle, London, until 11 October