REVIEWER RATING: ★★★★.5

Composer Stephen Schwartz is the man behind the score for Wicked, one of the most globally successful and loved musical theatre works of the 21st century.

Schwartz’s first work to appear on Broadway, in 1972, was Pippin, a musical originally written for his student theatre troupe at Pennsylvania’s Carnegie Mellon University. The original production was directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse and starred Ben Vereen as the Leading Player. Its first Australian outing was in 1974, with a cast that included “Johnny” Farnham, Colleen Hewett and Nancye Hayes.

Pippin’s Broadway revival didn’t happen for a further four decades. According to Schwartz, he was asked a number of times over the years to do a revival, but it was Diane Paulus who had an idea that he believed was original enough to bring something new to the musical. This new version of Pippin introduced a troupe of circus performers and changed the gender of the Leading Player.

Under Paulus’s direction, Pippin’s revival went on to be nominated for 10 Tony Awards and won four, including Best Revival and Best Direction. It is Paulus’s version of Pippin that became the first major musical to open in Sydney since the COVID-19 pandemic forced a complete shutdown of the industry in March.

With music and lyrics by Schwartz and a book by Roger O. Hirson, Pippin is the story of a young prince (Ainsley Melham) and his father, King Charles (Simon Burke – both characters are based on historical figures from the eighth century). Pippin yearns for excitement in his life and to achieve something extraordinary. Initially, he directs his efforts to joining the army and going to war, but is then urged to fight his father’s despotism.

Pippin involves a play within a play, where the prince’s story is told by the circus troupe, including an enigmatic and compelling Leading Player (Gabrielle McClinton). He falls in love with a widow, Catherine (Lucy Maunder), and is then forced to choose between a humble and ordinary life with her and her young son, Theo (Ryan Yeates) or seizing upon the possibility of making an extraordinary mark.

Pippin’s coming of age story is a simple one, but it highlights the dichotomy of the life less ordinary versus the expected path, where love and stability provide the meaning and satisfaction in life.

This reviewer had the opportunity to see the Broadway staging of this revival in 2013 and was completely bowled over at the time by its superbly talented cast and its sumptuous stage production, with Gypsy Snider’s circus elements and Chet Walker’s slick Fosse-inspired choreography. Seeing Paulus’s Pippin again in Sydney only reinforced my initial view that this staging is first-class musical theatre.

Even decades before Defying gravity or For good made their way into the canon, Schwartz had a gift for writing good pop melodies and Pippin is littered with memorable tunes. Corner of the sky, Pippin’s passionate communication of his longing to achieve something exceptional, is an early standout, while Act 1 closer Morning glow, Pippin’s gentle but powerful call to obliterate the status quo, is another earworm. It may have been almost 50 years since it was written by Schwarz, but there is no denying that this score holds up. Here in Sydney, it is brought to life with power and precision by a 12-piece orchestra, expertly led by Daniel Edmonds.

Paulus’s direction offers us some truly stunning visuals throughout, and the choreography is some of the best in any musical to have played Australia in recent years, with its detailed, small, characteristic Fosse movement. Snider’s circus acts are genuinely impressive – not least because some of the key moments involve the principal performers – and the cohesion of these acts with dance is seamless. It all happens under an old-fashioned circus tent (designed by Scott Pask) and the lighting (by Kenneth Posner) is perfect down to the last cue, optimising the visual impact of each scene. Dominique Lemieux’s costumes, meanwhile, are wonderful and assist in bringing this strange cast of characters to life beautifully.

Both the lead and ensemble cast members impress on opening night, affording exactly the type of return to the theatre they crave following an eight-month absence. Melham succeeds in his portrayal of the title character as awkward and guileless but vehemently determined to make something more of his life. His acting is excellent, but his impressive tenor is also on show here, as he delivers some tough sings.

Burke is well cast as King Charles, his presence and comedic timing particularly important here. As Charles’s wife, the scheming Fastrada, Leslie Bell is similarly an ideal fit. Her effortless dancing is particularly noteworthy, but all round, Bell’s is a strong performance. Maunder is warm and immensely appealing as Catherine, and she’s in fine voice (fortunately, having a number of opportunities during Act II to showcase her sizeable vocal prowess).

As the Leading Player, McClinton is spectacular. It is difficult to take your eyes off her whenever she takes the stage. She brings an otherworldly quality to her portrayal of the mysterious character. She’s lithe on her feet (her performance of the ‘Manson Trio’ in Act 1 is especially deft) and her presence ensures that her command of the space is never in doubt, and this is critical for a performer to succeed in this tricky role. And when it comes to her singing, she showcases both strength and tone.

For months, Sydney theatregoers have eagerly awaited a return to live performance spaces and Pippin offers precisely the quality and scale of experience appropriate to mark this momentous return. Make sure you’re a part of it.

Photo credits: Brian Geach and David Hooley

PIPPIN SEASON DETAILS

Venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre, The Star
Season: Playing now until 31 January 2020
Performance Times: Tues 7pm, Wed-Sat 7.30pm, Wed 1pm, Sat 2pm, Sun 1pm & 6pm
Prices: From $69.90 (Transaction fees apply)
Bookings: ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100

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