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The cast of Pippin. Photo by Michael Smith

Pippin at Bridewell Theatre

12 May 2018 Suzanne Frost

Pippin is a show so terrifyingly relevant, darkly disturbing and brilliantly entertaining you wonder why it isn’t programmed much more. The love child (or actually hate child - the two artists did not get along) of the just 17-year old Stephen Schwartz and the increasingly nihilistic and dark Broadway legend Bob Fosse, Pippin looks and sounds like Chicago’s weird disturbing cousin. Where Chicago is polished and glamorous, Pippin is a dirty, rag tag little satire about the deficient human spirit.

We all know the dark humour with which Chicago mocks the justice system, the media and people’s bendable morals and hunger for fame. Pippin goes even further, with numerous meta theatrical layers that thinly disguise a well-nigh disgust for humanity itself, our weakness, our selfishness, narcissistic sense of grandeur, backstabbing cruelty and our greedy sense of never getting enough. And yet – Stephen Schwartz’ songs, foreshadowing his blockbuster success with Wicked, are so brilliantly catchy, funny and jazzy you find yourself snapping along to scenes of death and destruction, murder, manipulation and sadistic bullying. Pippin is deliciously evil, and since humanity didn’t exactly get any better with time, its bite is as sharp as ever.

The cast of Pippin. Photo by Michael Smith

The Bridewell Theatre, an old repurposed Victorian swimming pool, transforms into a fittingly dark and vast theatrical space, which could be anywhere and nowhere. Let’s say it is medieval Charlemagne, where smug King Charles and classic evil stepmother Fastrada couldn’t care less about their son Pippin going through an existential crisis, as he finds himself a young man with no purpose or passion in life. But quite possibly, we are in a Brechtian meta-theatrical play after all, these people are not Kings and Queens but players in a travelling circus putting on this morality tale for your amusement. Their lead player is our host, emcee, stage director, godlike string puller or quite possibly the devil in person. It has become rather fashionable to cast the lead player as a woman, since Patina Miller made the role her own in the 2013 Broadway revival. It is fitting, as the lead player laughs at the travails of ‘mankind’ and since Ben Vereen, the originator of the role, destroyed his own legend by becoming the Harvey Weinstein of Broadway, maybe it’s best to hand over all the power of the lead player to a lady.

Corin Miller (Lead Player) and Joe Thompson-Oubari (Pippin). Photo by Michael Smith

Sedos is an amateur company but there is nothing amateur about Corin Miller, a fierce powerhouse of female authority. Half Lady Gaga, half Michael Jackson in a sequined circus director jacket and a platinum braid, she has her audience and the cast firmly in her hand. The look is contemporary, with a destructed dystopian Mad Max aesthetic, lots of ripped jeans and punky leather.
 
Pippin is a young man who is dissatisfied with the futility of life and dreams of doing something extraordinary. In his quest for meaning he tries war, drugs, sex, politics, revolution, socialism and gives a really hard try to leading an ordinary family life. But nothing satisfies him and in the end the only real kick you can get in life, the players suggest, is death. And so this all singing all dancing jazz hands musical ends with an invitation, or actually a cult-like peer pressure animation, for our hero to kill himself. It is useful to know that when Schwartz wrote the show, the Manson gang was at the peak of their activities, so death cult and demonic gurus were very much de rigeur.

Corin Miller and cast performing the Manson Trio. Photo by Michael Smith

Pippin refuses and settles for the ordinary life he first despised. But the demonic players, we are assured, will always be there for us when we need them. They are the voices in our head, they are dissatisfaction personified. A parable then for depression and mental health perhaps.
 
The company is enthusiastic throughout, the staging is ambitious and clever, the choreography on point, heavily referencing the master Bob Fosse but also up to date and inventive. The Manson Trio, one of the most iconic gems of Fosse dancing, is performed in the original choreography and danced very well. It is as bone chilling a piece of dance as you will ever see, and in its depiction of human addiction to violence and war, as relevant as ever. Pippin deserves way more revivals. Unlike Chicago it feels less trite and overdone, and its teeth are much sharper.
 
Pippin is at the Bridewell Theatre until 19 May.
 

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