There’s nothing like a monster hit to send producers scuttling to a composer’s back catalog: With Stephen Schwartz’s “Wicked” an unstoppable success, it was inevitable that someone would raise the “Pippin” question. On the evidence of this eye-wideningly misbegotten production, the question is why bother? The subsidiary question is why the Menier Chocolate Factory hired Mitch Sebastian, helmer of a grunge-style production of the show that tanked in 1998. Hard to believe, this bigger-budget, newly reconceived production is worse.
Although the 1972 hit famously boasts a Schwartz score — tuneful but often derivative — the show is remembered as a directorial and choreographic tour de force for Bob Fosse, whose staging drew upon but also drew attention away from Roger O. Hirson’s book.
In Sebastian’s contempo production, updated with “what the fuck” and other idiomatic expressions, the show is still blessed/saddled with the “Leading Player” (Matt Rawle, in a perf that may be described as King Leer) who takes wholly innocent Pippin (Harry Hepple), the son of the Emperor Charlemagne, aka Charles (Ian Kelsey), on a journey through war, lust, revolution, religion and power through to the End, i.e., death. It’s hippie-era naivete, a mode that hasn’t aged well.
To combat that problem, Sebastian presents the show as a videogame — each stage of Pippin’s quest is now a game level — complete with modish pre-show environment through which auds pass, observing Pippin in his scuzzy teenage bedroom glued to his computer.
Sebastian and designer Timothy Bird have reconfigured the space, the walls painted a thuddingly unatmospheric grey in order to take non-stop projections, which enervatingly race from literal to abstract, from hand-drawn images to CGI, film, video, manga and more.
While illustrating the stages of Pippin’s journey as ascending levels of a game makes a degree of sense, the solitary activity of gaming and the outward nature of song ‘n’ dance are a bad fit. The hyperactive images detract from any kind of throughline, often dwarfing the physical work. Fosse’s sexualized moves wind up neutered because they look quaintly dated when video for Internet porn sites is being flashed up behind them.
Onstage (over)use of video is famously problematic for lighting designers; Ken Billington (“Chicago”) uses the largest rig ever seen at this address, but his vast panoply of special effects and jolts of color have little discernible dramatic effect, partly because Sebastian’s staging has almost no visual focus. The cast dance all around the set, but rather than rising to a climax, numbers merely stop.
In 2011, no performer should be asked to spend most (in some cases all) of the evening in a unitard. Two of the cast, however, emerge with dignity intact. Pippin is a character without a will of his own, which makes him nearly impossible to play, but Harry Hepple does what he can and unleashes a beautiful voice.
And, just when you’ve given up hope for a moment of freshness or subtlety, on comes Carly Bawden, who inadvertently steals the show with wonderfully true, unaffected singing and simple, underplayed pathos.
Her part of the story revolves around a dead duck. The prosecution rests.