Pippin (Southwark Playhouse)

Pippin (Southwark Playhouse, until March 24th 2018)

Magic is sprinkled liberally in the air in the scintillating new production of avant garde musical Pippin, given a welcome and deserved transfer after its critical and popular success at the Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester, last year.

First produced on Broadway in 1972, the Stephen Schwartz musical is roughly a contemporary of his other famous 70s hit Godspell, which in some ways is a sacred companion to the more secular fable told here. Instead of taking the Bible as its basis, Pippin is a faux historical tale drawn from the life of pre-Medieval European emperor Charlemagne and his youngest son, Pepin.

It is one of those shows that musicals fans are likely to have on their “must see” list having savoured some of the songs without really knowing what to expect from the show itself. The fact that it is being produced at all is therefore a delight, but that it is being done in such an assured and likeable production at Southwark Playhouse is enough to cheer the heart and senses.

Pippin’s plot has regularly confounded audiences, but at its heart it is a coming of age story about a young man taking a journey of discovery through life and love, finding himself and his humanity in the process. It is a show that also dares to reflect on old age and depression, yet from these unlikely seeds grows a towering blossom with strong performances throughout plus blistering energy and style, and considerable coherence. .

In director Jonathan O’Boyle’s enthralling production the touring players who perform the story and frame the whole become a Victorian Vaudeville act, ruled over by a sexy but sinister Leading Player, who appears to have her own reasons for wanting the show to be performed strictly according to the rules. Genevieve Nicole injects a sense of foreboding into the commanding Burlesque figure, a mistress of dark artistic pleasures whose sense of razzle dazzle is as much an invitation to experience the Slough of Despond as it is the Paradise of positive thinking.

Youthful, good-looking and tousle-haired, Jonathan Carlton eagerly and easily embraces the title role, a fresh-faced young man delighted and puzzled by the discoveries on his journey. He gets to sing two of the show’s best numbers, Corner of the Sky and Morning Glow, and does so with vocal strength and confidence. His is a name and face to watch out for in the future.

There’s a double star comic turn from Mairi Barclay, playing both Pippin’s stepmother, the scheming Fastrada, and his lively grandmother Berthe, who manages to whip up plenty of audience participation in her crucial Act One showstopper No Time at All.

Tessa Kadler is a no-nonsense Catherine, the widow who becomes romantically involved with Pippin (and causing the Leading Player’s carefully acted out story to start edging off the rails); Rhidian Marc is great fun as the emperor, and Bradley Judge is hilarious as Pippin’s vain half brother Lewis, though while his state of déshabillé shows off commendable physical assets, we can only hope the current cold climate doesn’t give him a chill.

Bob Fosse originally directed and choreographed the show, and his presence isn’t too far away in William Whelton’s thrilling choreography, which unashamedly uses Fosse’s own Manson Trio steps in the Glory number.  But Whelton makes his own mark on the show away from the hats and the ostrich feathers, creating an atmosphere that is sensuous and mischievous (note, for example, the naughty reference to celebrated British ice skating champions in one romantic number).

Maeve Black’s set and costumes cast one’s mind back to the good old days of music hall: there is something akin to an end of the pier melancholy about it that is as likely to evoke a tear as a smile.

Musical director Zach Fils ensures the contemporary vibe of the instantly memorable songs isn’t overshadowed by too much period charm, while all the performers effortlessly break through the fourth wall from this thrust rectangular stage to give a timeless tremor to the unravelling saga.

This production uses the “Schwartz and all” ending which takes the imagination a little further than the original, suggesting the tale will constantly strive to be performed and completed, however the actors choose to play it, yet it will only suffice when performed according to the will of the Leading Player.

Pippin at the Southwark Playhouse is flawless, a perfect production of a classic musical that has rarely seen the light of day in London and which will surely have audiences wanting to revisit to enjoy it in all its aspects.

David Guest

Picture, Pamela Raith

A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub  http://www.thereviewshub.com/

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