Stephen Schwartz’s perennial Broadway hit Pippin is almost fifty years old now. Yet its mysticism, hippy messages of self-fulfilment and liberal ideology have consistently struck a chord with audiences. Why? Well, helpful programme notes explain that despite opening in 1972 Pippin really captures the spirit of 1967, a momentous year for the U.S. counter-culture movement. So it makes sense that there are heavy (as in heavy, man) touches of flower power in the air and on the walls as we take our seats.
This doesn’t mean this stripped-back Pippin feels old. Not for a second. It opens by defiantly kicking down the fourth wall and setting its high-energy cast free to deliver the story unencumbered with anything as dull as historical references or backstories. The feeling of a gang of raggedy players arriving, fully formed and on a mission to entertain is key to Steven Dexter’s confident direction. It is all uber-theatrical mind you, so if you’re a fan of naturalism or, dare I say, subtlety, this might not be your cup of Darjeeling.
The plot, not that it matters hugely, sees Prince Pippin, son of King Charlemagne, find himself through a series of episodic life lessons. As a character, Pippin is, inevitably perhaps, a slightly whiny adolescent, especially early on. A dangly earring really doesn’t help either. Just what is it with young people today? Ryan Anderson’s excellent lead performance may tease and irritate the middle-aged but the folly of youth it embodies is the very beating heart of the show.
This isn’t a show that hangs on its lead by any stretch though. The eight performers make a superb ensemble. But if you are going to twist my arm to praise individuals, Daniel Krikler brings huge levels of charm and humour as a laid back college campus kind of a King. Genevieve Nicole as Berthe, Pippin’s wise young-at-heart grandmother, fizzes deliciously through her number No Time at All. It is certainly the highlight of Act One and, for my money, of the whole darn show.
Conscious that readers may be new to Pippin, it’s worth holding back slightly on Act Two to avoid spoiling surprises. It’s probably enough to say there is a definite change in tone. This is marked particularly in the skilful performance of Ian Carlyle who, as the narrating Lead Player, evolves from a genial all singing, all dancing guide to portray something darker and more menacing.
The songs are divine as you would expect from multiple Oscar, Tony and Grammy winner Schwarz. If you don’t have at least a couple of his melodies running through your head on the way home, then there’s no hope for you frankly. Roger O. Hirson’s book remains witty and the gags still land. What’s not to love?
On the evidence of Pippin, Charing Cross Theatre’s reputation looks set to grow and grow. This can only be good news for musical theatre fans. If that’s you, you really should be beating a path to their door now that you can.
Directed by: Steven Dexter
Choreography by: Nick Winston
Musical Direction by: Chris Ma
Set & Costume Designed by: David Shields
Produced by: Adam Blanshay & Edward Johnson
Pippin plays at Charing Cross Theatre until 14 August. Further information and booking via the below link.