Southwark Playhouse, London – until 24 March 2018
Transferring down from Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, Jonathan O’Boyle’s production of Pippin, now playing at the Southwark Playhouse, has lost none of the pizzazz and poignancy that marked it out as one of the nation’s finest Fringe productions of last year.
One of Stephen Schwartz’s early compositions, the show is loosely based around a group of travelling players who tell a fictionalised story of Pippin, the (real life) younger son of Emperor Charlemagne who conquered much of continental Europe many centuries ago. To describe any more of the plot would only confuse readers – suffice to say that Schwartz spices his tale with themes of politics, war, love and above all, self-discovery.
In Pippin however it is not so much what Schwartz is saying, but rather the way he says it that makes the musical such a stand out sensation. His songs are, for the most part, perfectly structured harmonies while the Bob Fosse-inspired choreography was to showcase Fosse’s stylish and distinctive class well in advance of his more famous Cabaret and Chicago outings.
O’Boyle has transferred virtually his entire Manchester cast to London, with Genevieve Nicole heading the lineup as the Leading Player and bringing a powerful Mephistophelean nuance to the part. Statuesque, Nicole bestrides the sage with stunning song and dance.
The title role presents an interesting challenge. Pippin’s journey through the show is from privileged prince to commoner – travelling, an arc that includes love, murder and power, along with a fair measure of bungling haplessness. Jonathan Carlton is perfectly cast, rising to his part’s musical challenges with a particularly gorgeous take on the act one closer of ‘Morning Glow’.
In a glorious moment of (scripted) self-indulgence Mairi Barclay is Pippin’s incorrigible grandmother Berthe. As this most glorious of grannies celebrates her wisdom and old age in No Time At All, the number evolves into an audience singalong, with Barclay hilariously bringing the fourth wall crashing down around her. Barclay also offers a neat double-up as Pippin’s cunningly seductive stepmother Fastrada.
Fine work too from Tessa Kadler as Catherine, a widowed commoner who after the interval guides Pippin in the ways of love. Kadler’s interpretations of Schwartz’s Kind of Woman and Love Song are particularly delicate turns, serving to contrast the realities of everyday humanity with the bombast of Pippin’s earlier life.
But above all it is the music and dance that drive a successful Pippin, lifting its (sometimes tortuous) narrative to a higher plane. Maeve Black’s set is an ingenious use of Southwark’s space, the concepts behind her designs proving simple yet striking and with footlights around the thrust’s perimeter, the vaudeville suggestion is convincing.
William Whelton’s choreography is audacious, breathtaking and sexy and yet incorporating beautifully executed nods to Fosse – the Manson Trio routine in act one proving especially fine. Above the stage Zach Flis’ band captures Schwartz’s complex melodies perfectly.
This Pippin is one of those productions rarely seen on the fringe. It captures the sparkle of Broadway, transporting it to south London in a whirl of unmissable musical theatre.
Magic to do? Not half!
* Amongst last year’s cast was Olivia Faulkner who was an outstanding dance captain. Olivia died tragically in November and donations to the foundation established in her name to further mental health support in the dance world can be made here.