For eight months, major musical stages across Australia were empty. No bright-eyed protagonists feeling more and more until there’s simply nothing left to do but break into song; no ensemble of impossibly beautiful triple threats telling the story with their bodies; no swelling overtures or hopeful love ballads; no magic.
It’s fitting, then, that the first major musical to light up Australian stages is one that opens by promising its audience an evening of magic.
Pippin, the 1972 musical that blends Middle Ages holy wars history with existential despair and also the circus (testing the willing suspension of disbelief in even the most fervent lover of the form), is a show that might even benefit from its surreal outside conditions. For the Australian premiere, in Sydney on Thursday, we are shuttled into a maze of rope-fenced lines to find our seats (following the ticketing advice for unique arrival times, staggered by seating section). The lines reduce the number of people in foyer spaces at any one time, but also make you feel like you should remove your shoes and pull electronics from your bag before passing through customs. Masks are required; a man in a hi-vis vest passes out Pippin-branded ones.
It’s all very strange, but also fitting: Pippin is a very strange show.
A Leading Player (Gabrielle McClinton) invites us into her circus (there are acrobats, silks, fire juggling, and jumping through hoops) to observe the story of Pippin (Ainsley Melham), the son of Charlemagne (Simon Burke, called Charles here). Pippin doesn’t know what to do with his life; the Leading Player thinks he should sacrifice himself for her ideal grand finale (jumping into a fire and dying – objectively a big ending).
But first, Pippin tries on different identities: a solider, a hedonist, and finally, a pastoral husband-and-father-figure to Catherine, a widow (Lucy Maunder) and Theo, a young boy with a duck (really). (The role of the boy is shared by four young performers; on opening night, Ryan Yeates played the part.)
The circus and the Leading Player follow Pippin around, encouraging his dissatisfaction. There are a lot of acrobatics and an undeniably talented supporting cast, but the biggest function of the spectacle is to help to disguise the fundamental weakness of the book, which glances over Pippin’s journey to find meaning, distracting us with superficial musical numbers, and never quite seems to reconcile its disparate influences into a cohesive whole. This production, based on the 2013 Broadway revival, is a textbook exercise in misdirection.
That extends off-stage, too: Kerri-Anne Kennerley sings charmingly on a stationary trapeze, her witty performance garnering thunderous applause as the audience collectively looks away from her history of inflammatory comments, and other controversy over the show’s cast.
Australian musical theatre is often at its best when it embraces our loveable contempt of the earnestness of the form: see, for instance, the ABC-recorded and wildly popular 1994 Australian take on Pirates of Penzance, starring Jon English as the rowdiest Pirate King of all operetta; and most recently Virginia Gay’s daring, raucous performance as musical theatre’s once-polished up Calamity Jane. It’s a shame, then, that this production is trapped in the blueprint of the American revival; its built-in fourth-wall breaking and knowing twinkle could be explored and re-mapped to local humour and sensibilities in the hands of a local Leading Player (McClinton is American, and played the role on Broadway) and director.
As Pippin, Melham has good comedy instincts and makes some interesting choices that suggest depth and creative invention beyond what’s required in this production; and Simon Burke’s Charles has a hint of that wild, playful performance energy that infiltrates Australian stages when our musical hall/vaudeville history meets our ironic streak. But those are the only glimpses we get of it here; after all these months, as we finally return to musicals, it would have been wonderful to see more of our own hearts in it.
But Pippin does have a heart, and it’s carried by both Melham’s wistful performance and Lucy Maunder’s surprisingly lovely, open-hearted take on Catherine, the widowed mother who falls for Pippin. She grounds the show; she reaches out to our softer parts. She gives us a few moments to catch our breath and feel some real emotion, with her softer songs that are balanced with stronger emotional conviction.
The Pippin score is a product of its time: a 70s soft-pop affair that declares itself with bombast and settles back down into a groove, over and over again like waves. Composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz (in his 20s at the time) built out the idea of the show from one he had devised at university, and while it would be decades before he changed the musical theatre landscape with Wicked, you see the seeds of his particular gift with lyrics in Pippin: his phrases are simple but universal, by way of the poetic. There’s a reason that Pippin’s “I want” song, Corner of the Sky, endures in cabarets and live shows: it’s the best part of the show, and its imagery is crisp and clear. When Melham sings “People like the way dreams have/Of sticking to the soul”, you can hold the feeling in your hands and turn it over. Pippin wants to find his place in the world – don’t we all?
But these smaller moments are fighting for attention in a sea of backflips and leaps and hints to the original Bob Fosse choreography that are mostly drowned in stunts. The misdirection is so thorough that we almost miss the soul.
• Pippin is playing at the Lyric Theatre at Sydney’s Star Casino until 31 January 2020