Following last week’s enthusiastically received presentation of Godspell, Magnormos continued their Stephen Schwartz Triptych with a magical presentation of fellow 1970s musical Pippin. Currently enjoying a hit revival on Broadway, Pippin has dropped off Melbourne’s playlist in recent years, making this thrilling concert staging a welcome sight.
Full credit for the success of this presentation lies with the superb creative team, whose terrific concept and tight drilling of the cast produced an electric evening of snappy direction, spectacular, no, very spectacular choreography and sensational music. Song flowed effortlessly from dialogue, dance sprang energetically from music, and characters were enhanced by their dazzling choreographic moves. The talented cast shone with the joy of performing, framed by well chosen design elements.
As offstage ringmaster, director Stephen Wheat expertly inspired the cast to achieve his vision for the show. Pippin’s journey moved at a cracking pace as the troupe created theatrical magic from rope and two boxes. Thankfully the inclusion of any naff magic tricks just for the sake of it was avoided. The full humour of Roger O. Hirson’s book was brought out thanks to deadpan delivery, with the full pathos also fully delivered thanks to clear characterisations and committed performances. Scenes such as Pippin’s deadly confrontation with his father and Pippin’s gradual involvement with widow Catherine and her son Theo were tense, engaging and moving. Wheat’s eye for detail and flair for stagecraft meant that there was not a dull or wasted moment in the performance. Cast remained onstage when not in scenes on chairs, and even this was done with interesting levels.
Relative newcomer Michael Ralph provided brilliant support for Wheat by not only coming up with thrilling, inventive choreography but also by drilling the cast to perfection in an extremely short time. Number after number, particularly in act one, was characterized by distinct, eye-popping, full company choreography that derived organically from character and plot. The strong influence of Fosse remains, of course, and the iconic Manson Trio in “War is a Science,” danced by Rohan Browne, Kirsten King and Yvette Lee, was reproduced perfectly.
Leading rock musical conductor Andrew Leach presided over a tight twelve-piece band, which brought a refreshed, updated sound to Schwartz’s classic score. Harmonies from the singers sounded wonderful, especially after some early adjustments of microphone levels.
Given the simple concert stage setting, designer Christina Logan-Bell added plenty of visual appeal with varied, glamorous, darkly jewel-toned costumes. Rear projections created various locations, although the opportunity was missed for follow-the-bouncing-ball screens for the singalong choruses of Berthe’s joyous anthem “No Time At All.”
Perfectly cast as hero Pippin, young music theatre performer Luigi Lucente gave a breakout performance, all the more sensational for the understated, unshowy manner he adopted for this massive, complex role. The right age to have plenty of experience but also appear wide-eyed, fresh faced and buff, Lucente deftly balanced Pippin’s passion, wonder, narcissism, selfishness and ambition in a completely endearing performance. In fine voice for the soaring ballads, Lucente proved the master at transitioning effortlessly between the spoken and sung word. With all dialogue and songs, Lucente supported the improvised style of the piece by making it appear that the words and thoughts were coming to him spontaneously. One further highlight was a great dance duet with Browne in “Extraordinary.”
In a role seemingly tailor-made to his talents, Browne sang and danced up a storm as the deceptively nefarious Leading Player. Browne ruled over proceedings without any of the corny ringmaster style, the songs perfectly suited his vocal range and power, and he displayed inimitable Fosse style, right down to wearing his hat at the oh so perfect angle. Browne developed the right tone to portray the increasingly demanding and controlling side of the Leading Player in act two, leading to a believable, and necessarily uncomfortable, outburst in the finale.
Casting and direction for the show created a unique magic in which the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. Each performer made an invaluable contribution whilst also supporting the conceit that the company is a troupe of players putting on a show. Chloe Dallimore coated ambitious Fastrada’s steely resolve in sugary pink, her glamour underlying the full irony of Fastrada’s claim to be “just a simple housewife and mother.” David Spencer squeezed in just the right amount of humanity as the ruthless, single-minded King Charlemagne. Jackie Rees, as Berthe, was slightly affected by nerves but the joy of her rousing number shone through.
Brawny Mike Snell was an ideal Lewis, and his dance duet with Dallimore in “Spread A Little Sunshine” was yet another choreographic highlight. Elise Brennan brought wholesome charm and a sweet singing voice to Catherine. As young Theo, Jack Lyall walked away with the end of the show thanks to a gorgeous unaccompanied verse of “Corner of the Sky” in the new ending.
See you back at the Melbourne Recital Centre next Monday as the Stephen Schwartz Triptych concludes with the even-more-rarely-seen Children of Eden.
Photos: Angelo Leggas
This review published on Theatre People 17 September 2013.