When “Pippin” opened on Broadway in 1972, the running time was a fleeting and functional 118 minutes. In its reincarnation at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J., the song-and-dance odyssey of Charlemagne’s son’s quest for fulfillment takes a half-hour longer, including an added intermission. Boasting new choreography and orchestrations, the reconceived production proves the tried-and-true rule that less is more. The show has lost its charm, dash and whimsy.
The medieval musical morality play is presented in what appears to be the gloomy back alley behind a dance club. The players crawl out of a limo in a cloud of smoke, not unlike the endless file of clowns who emerge from tiny cars at the circus (or some familiar Broadway felines in junkyard auto trunks). Garbed in muddy leather jackets and dull metallic vests, the dancers engage in new and unimaginative punk-rock choreography created by Rob Ashford. There is a great deal of repetitive footwork and hand jive, dominated by the frug and some slinky disco gyrations. A tepid tango along the way adds little, despite the presence of some dazzling and leggy showgirls.
Pippin’s hapless journey through wars, revolts and bedrooms and his arrival at domesticity in the arms of a widow remains an amusing if somewhat burdensome allegory. As staged by Robert Johanson — who is expected to continue as the Paper Mill’s a.d. next season, despite conflicting reports — the show appears to have lost its magic-show flavor. The style and imagination that Bob Fosse brought to the original production as both director and choreographer is sorely absent. There’s nothing wrong with a fresh approach to an aging tuner, but when an original and fanciful concept is reshaped in such murky terms, the thrill is gone.
The score by Stephen Schwartz still boasts an infectious air and lilting charm. “Spread a Little Sunshine,” “Magic to Do” and “Corner of the Sky” hold up quite nicely, as does “Extraordinary,” sung with boyish charm by Jack Noseworthy.
The leading player, master of ceremonies and tour guide is acted by Jim Newman with more energy than nuance. With the mocking presence of a bullying thug, the actor skirts the wit, irony and vaudeville charm of the character. He is also called upon to act as the director of the play within the play, but his intrusive bursts of advice to actors don’t make a great deal of sense.
Noseworthy is generally acceptable as Pippin, yet there is a certain loss of innocence in his approach to the role. Broadway and TV vet Charlotte Rae makes her entrance in a wheelchair as Pippin’s granny, who leads the audience in a sing-along on “No Time at All.” Missing is the apple-pie twinkle and geriatric charm. Once a show-stopper, the number now does little to enhance the tenuous ebb and flow of the first act.
Ed Dixon, as Charlemagne, displays proper cynical bluster and pomp, yet the infectious silliness of the character has been either lost in the update, or the comic potential has been unrealized by both actor and director.
Michael Anania’s dark and lurid set design offers a tenement network of black spiral staircases, fire escapes and bridges, all set against black arches and a black brick wall. Even Charlemagne’s court has lost its color, splendor and, most of all, its magic.