Foibles and Fables To Portray: Thoughts on Pippin – July 27, 2013

The search for the meaning of life and the quest of finding a place in the world is a universal and eternal journey everyone makes and takes at some point in their lives. Some know exactly who they want to be and what they want to do and travel down one road, while others meander through various paths in the search for the right track. Distractions and doubt can deter or delay the journey, resulting in a detour that could lead one down a different path than intended, to a place unexpected and extraordinary; such themes are at the heart of Pippin, currently playing at the Music Box Theater. This Tony Award winning revival started its life at the American Reparatory Theater (A.R.T.) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and soon transferred to Broadway; I was familiar with the story and score, though having only seen the filmed production in the early 1980s. When I learned about this revival, and the presence of Terrence Mann in its cast (more on that later) I was piqued by the inclusion of the circus theme – I had heard and seen (via YouTube) much about this production, and their performance on the Tony Awards cemented my interest in seeing this show. Once again I headed to TKTS to obtain my ticket, along with my good friend Kelley, and was glad to see that the show was up on the TKTS boards, albeit with a 20% discount (a 20% discount is better than none, I suppose).

Pippin marquee

The story of Pippin starts with the introduction of the Leading Player, the mysterious and alluring ringmaster, who guides the titular character, the son of Charlemagne, through his quest of finding his place in the world – his “Corner of the Sky”. The use of the circus theme is accentuated with the show’s opening number “Magic To Do”, with the cast of players performing amazing feats of acrobatics and Bob Fosse-inspired choreography, which works spectacularly well as a construct for the show. While all the acrobatics were thrilling to watch, at times it was a bit overwhelming to see them all at once – there were times I wasn’t quite sure where to focus my attention among the amazingly talented and agile ensemble cast, so I might have missed seeing some of the performers. The lighting and scenic design was inspired and complemented all the actions onstage.

Pippin cast list

The principal cast was astounding (most of whom I had seen at met at the CD signing a few weeks ago) – the Tony Awards bestowed upon Patina Miller and Andrea Martin (as the Leading Player and Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother) were well deserved. Both were brilliant in their respective roles: Patina Miller is a formidable triple threat – an amazing singer, a graceful dancer and a fantastic actress (who can also sing, walk and hula hoop all at the same time); Andrea Martin basically stopped the show for a few minutes after her number “No Time at All” – critical reviews had alluded to her performance in that number was not to be missed, while giving little detail as to why this was the case. After seeing her performance, I wholeheartedly agree with the critics (for a change), and I won’t spoil it here either – all I will say is that the thunderous ovation she received was richly deserved. Terrence Mann and Charlotte d’Amboise were equally amazing as Charlemagne and his wife Fastrada (it’s also a fun fact to know that they are also married to each other offstage) – Terrence Mann was a delight to see in every scene he was in, and Charlotte d’Amboise is a fantastic dancer.

The stage door experience was a fun one, as always, with a small crowd of people waiting outside – I wasn’t quite sure if many of the actors would come out the stage door, as I attended a Saturday matinee, and there was another show in the evening. I’m sure most of the actors were resting up, as there was much movement and action going on onstage. Happily, Matthew James Thomas, Andrew Cekala and Rachel Bay Jones emerged from the stage door to sign playbills and to pose for photos – all three were fantastic in their respective roles as Pippin, Theo and Catherine, and chatted with those at the stage door a while.

Pippin stage door

At the stage door with Matthew James Thomas and Rachel Bay Jones

 Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed this production and all the energy and theatrics on display from a truly multi-talented cast – if a Tony Award for Best Ensemble ever existed (and I really believe there should be one), this cast would be awarded with one. There was a lot of Magic To Do onstage, and for a few hours I did feel as if I was transported to their world, and (almost) makes me want to run away to join the circus.

Pippin signed playbill

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Parts to Perform, Hearts to Warm: Pippin CD Signing at Barnes & Noble – July 9, 2013

As stated in a previous blog, while there are a plethora of CD signings, books signings, etc. that occur at Barnes & Noble, I usually attend those in which I have an interest, and such was the case for the CD signing for the newly released cast recording of Pippin, the 2013 Tony Award winner for Best Musical Revival. I was quite familiar with the show and its score, and was looking forward to meeting the principal cast as well as composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz; in addition to the CD signing, there would also be a performance from the cast, which was an extra treat.

Pippin CD signing

This CD signing was again at the Barnes & Noble store on the Upper East side, and as my wont, I arrived early (before the store opened) and saw that about a dozen people were already waiting outside; upon entry, made my way to the music section, bought my CDs (limit two per person), received the [pink] wristband that would guarantee me entry (though I always find it amusing that the disclaimer that “this wristband does not guarantee you entry to this event” is printed on the wristbands). I then headed to my (now usual) spot in front of where the CD signing was to take place to wait – a few of people started to arrive and wait on line (of which I was first) about an hour into waiting. As I waited, I stuck up conversations with a trio of fans who collectively had seen the show over 80 times, and were among the fan chorus featured on the track “No Time at All” (a first for a Broadway cast recording, I’m told). The line steadily grew as time went on (and around the 1 PM mark, I overheard that all the wristbands were distributed).

The cast arrived roughly an hour before the event start (4PM) and there were press people from Broadwayworld.com and Broadway.com conducting video interviews with the arriving cast; the doors opened roughly a quarter to four, and the seating began, with those in the front of the line seated in the center. Shortly after all the seats were filled, the video of the recording session of Pippin’s opening number “Magic to Do” was shown prior to Barnes & Noble Event manager Steven Sorrentino introduced composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz to the stage, who was greeted with great applause. Mr. Schwartz in turn introduced each of the cast members who would be performing: first, Rachel Bay Jones sang “Kind of Woman”, she was then joined by Matthew James Thomas to sing the duet “Love Song”; finally, Tony Award Winner Patina Miller sang “Simple Joys”, all of which were greeted with great applause and cheering.

Clockwise from top left: composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz, Rachel Bay Jones, Patina Miller, and Matthew James Thomas and Rachel Bay Jones

Clockwise from top left: composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz, Rachel Bay Jones, Patina Miller, and Matthew James Thomas and Rachel Bay Jones

Afterwards the customary press photo session commenced before the CD signing portion of the event began; in addition to the aforementioned principal cast members, Terrence Mann, Charlotte d’Amboise and Andrea Martin were also in attendance, as well as the Tony Award itself. In another (slight) deviation from previous CD signing sessions, those seated at the left side of the stage (and seated in the chairs closest to where the tables at which the cast would be signing the CDs) were the first to line up to get their CDs signed (which makes sense, so the event runners would be able to clear that immediate area first). The cast was genial and chatted with everyone on the line, and every now and again, press photographers lingered about to snap photos.

Clockwise from top left: Charlotte d'Amboise, Rachel Bay Thomas, Stephen Schwartz, Patina Miller (and the Tony Award), Terrence Mann, Andrea Martin and Matthew James Thomas

Clockwise from top left: Charlotte d’Amboise, Rachel Bay Thomas, Stephen Schwartz, Patina Miller (and the Tony Award), Terrence Mann, Andrea Martin and Matthew James Thomas

It was quite a thrilling experience to meet the cast and to chat with them as well – I did make it a point to thank Stephen Schwartz for all his amazing scores and to shake his hand (he was quite genial about it). There was not much opportunity to linger about, as there was quite a line of people waiting to get their CDs signed, and the fact that they had an 8 PM show that evening. Though I have yet to see the show – tickets are for the most part expensive, and there’s usually a massive line for the general rush tickets (while chatting with the trio of Pippin fans, they had informed me that people usually line up  as early as 2 AM the night before (or  the morning of, depending on how you look at it) the box office opens to purchase the limited amount of $37 rush tickets [just as a point of reference, Broadway box offices open at 10 AM on weekdays] – I do plan on seeing the show soon, though I have seen video clips of this production (as well as the performance on the Tony Awards) and it looks quite Extraordinary.

Pippin Signed CD booklet

Pippin Signed CD booklet

Even The Darkest Night Will End and The Sun Will Rise – Memories of Les Miserables

With the long-awaited, star-laden film adaptation due to be released on Christmas Day (about which I will expound my opinions as soon as I am able to see it), Les Miserables has returned to the US in a grand manner. While the stage production is still running in London (where it is the longest running musical), and there are countless touring productions all around the world, there is no Broadway production currently running, which is probably the only negative thing about Les Miserables at this moment. Thankfully, there have been several concert performances, namely the 10th and 25th Anniversary concerts that have been filmed that I can watch over and over in lieu of seeing a live production.

Les Miserables was one of the first musicals of which I became aware when I was growing up, and has become my all time favorite musical that I have ever seen live onstage. I first became aware of the score in grade school when the glee club (yes, I was in the glee club / chorus from the third grade through eighth grade) sang a medley of songs from the show, which had also prompted me to read the Victor Hugo novel, albeit the abridged version – tackling the 1,200+ page unabridged version was a daunting task for a nine-year-old to undertake. Les Miserables was also among the first stage musicals I ever saw (though I can’t recall who had been that initial Broadway cast – it was not the original cast), and is one of three musicals I have seen in the double digits [the other two being Phantom of the Opera and La Cage aux Folles].

Les Miserables marquee 2006

Les Miserables marquee at the Broadhurst Theatre, October 24, 2006 – January 6, 2008

I recall being crestfallen when the original production has announced it closing in 2003, and while I had been unable to obtain a ticket to the final performance, I was able to obtain one of the last tickets while waiting on the cancellation line to the next-to-last performance, which had been the first (though not the last) time I spent $100 for a single ticket – ticket prices back then were not as exorbitant as they are now. I also recall the utter joy I felt when I had read that to commemorate the show becoming the longest running show on the West End, the show would be revived in late 2006; that production was supposed to be a six month run, and ended up running over year and a half. This blog will therefore focus more on the revival production, as it is fresher in my recent memory, though there is one lasting memory I have from seeing the original production. Two months before its closing, Terrence Mann, who had brilliantly originated the role of Inspector Javert, returned to reprise his role, and I was finally able to see him on stage, ending years of my missing him perform live on stage [in the shows I had seen in which he was in the cast until that time – Cats, Beauty and the Beast, and The Scarlet Pimpernel – he had either been on vacation or had recently left the production]. Needless to say, he was astounding in the role, and remains one of my favorite actors to play that role.

The 2006 – 2008 Broadway revival production had non-traditional casting, meaning that race and ethnicity did not factor in casting the characters (who, of course are French). I loved the revival cast, which included Alexander Gemignani, Norm Lewis, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Aaron Lazar, Jenny Galloway, Gary Beach and Carly Rose Sonenclar (to name but a few) with one glaring exception – for whatever reason, Daphne Rubin-Vega, best known as being the original Mimi in Rent had been cast as Fantine. While she may have been fantastic as Mimi (full disclosure – I had not seen her in Rent, and I have the original cast recording to go by), she was terrible as Fantine, to the point where at the performance I had attended, the audience actually cheered when [spoiler alert!] Fantine died. That’s just not right. Thankfully, the succeeding actors to play the role – Lea Salonga and Judy Kuhn – were remarkably better, and interestingly enough had notably played two other significant roles in the past. Lea Salonga had played Eponine during the original run and Judy Kuhn had originated the role of Cosette, and both had reprised these roles in the 10th Anniversary concert. Other notable replacements during the revival run were John Owen-Jones as Valjean, and Max von Essen as Enjolras, both of whom were brilliant in their respective roles.

Whereas I was not able to attend the final performance of the original production, I was able to attend the final performance of the revival production on January 6, 2008, sitting the (right) box seat, which is an interesting perspective of the show. Seeing the show and listening to the score was, and is, one of the most moving experiences I have ever had in the theatre. Without fail, almost regardless of the cast, I’m weeping by the end of the show – just hearing the opening notes of “Bring Him Home” induces tears; it’s not all doom and gloom, though – there are moments of levity, most of which came from the opportunistic Thenardiers, in “Master of the House”, “The Thenardier Waltz of Treachery” and “Beggar at the Feast”, Gary Beach and Jenny Galloway were perfect in balancing their comic timing with underling menace to not let the audience forget that they too are the villains of the piece. Other moments of levity (whether intended or not) were provided by Adam Jacobs as Marius and Drew Sarich as Grantaire; Adam Jacobs had played Marius as awkward beau, with his hesitant opening delivery of “A Heart Full of Love”, which always induced giggles from the audience, and Drew Sarich’s brilliant portrayal of the drunken Grantaire during “Red and Black”.

IMG_0108

Final curtain call, Broadway revival: January 6, 2008

The stage door experience after that final performance was frenzied as always, though it does amuse me that more times than not, it’s always a chilly night whenever I stage door, and thankfully while it had been cold, it did not snow.  The cast had emerged to an enthusiastic crowd of fans and signed playbills and posed for photos, per usual. I truly believe that it is utterly impossible for anyone who has ever seen the show or listened to any of the cast recordings (and there are a lot of them out there, in multiple languages) to not be moved to tears by the music and the story that tells of the triumph of the human spirit in harsh and unforgiving circumstances.

Me with some of the cast - clockwise from top left (John Owen-Jones, Max von Essen, Jenny Galloway and Gary Beach)

Clockwise from top left: John Owen-Jones, Max von Essen, Jenny Galloway and Gary Beach

Nearly five years has passed since the revival production (and almost ten years since the original production) closed on Broadway – I can only hope with all the laurels the film adaptation is generating that a permanent revival will return. There have been rumors that the current US Touring production might find its way to New York City.

Brief update:  It has been announced that Les Miserables will return to Broadway sometime in 2014, though no specific date or venue has yet been confirmed.

Commemorative plaque right outside the Imperial Theatre

Commemorative plaque right outside the Imperial Theatre