Pippin

Pippin is a difficult musical, and in the past has been staged as a fully-fledged acrobatic circus (Les 7 Doigts de la Main did a great job). Without that physical heft, Schwartz and Hirson’s spectacular has the potential to feel like a puppet’s careers fair as Pippin – the main cog in the Lead Player’s machine – tries out war, sex, patriarchal overthrow, pacifism, unexpectedly genteel domestic arrangements and maybe self-immolation.

One wonders if the tassels attached to each character’s wrists represent her lifeblood, while they flutter in well-managed, if slightly stilted, dance routines.

There are similarities to Urinetown, which is incidentally being performed with vocal aplomb by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Both musicals confront some kind of oppression, challenging the convention of theatre and offering up a naive but well-meaning rebel. Cambridge University Musical Theatre Society (CUMTS) is of course an amateur student company, but they charge almost as much as RCS.

It doesn’t seem possible to make heads or tails of Pippin though. The inconsistent middle age contexts, the narrative void, the simplistic reanimation of the dead, romantic liaisons that confuse rather than draw us in, the eponymous figure’s dastardly superiority complex: all are off-putting. Every character appears to be a flake, from a domineering king who willfully accepts patricide to a peasant who just never dies as instructed (though that’s successfully played for laughs).

This production of Pippin whacks out Disney ballads and delights in underdeveloped Lucan-like necromancy. The metatheatricality of Pippin is its heavy handy premise. However, I spotted a number of occasions in which ensemble members momentarily slipped out of character with awkward glances which didn’t appear to be knowingly meta. Due in part to this, relationships never felt real in spite of convincing dialogue.

The cast deserves credit: ensemble pieces are balanced well when individuals aren’t wandering off and on stage. The Lead Player is suitable seductive, and Pippin’s extended family ridiculise the aristocracy enthusiastically. The subtle asides (“chunder” pops up) and harsh putdowns demonstrate that this bunch can work an audience.

But the unamplified solos are generally overwhelmed by the skilled brass, and occasionally the band and soloist don't meld (especially where an electric guitar is involved). Singers sometimes run out of puff instead of building to a sustained climax. The risqué themes - for a musical that is - set off giggles ('sex presented pastorally'); unfortunately the smaller gags suffer: when an enemy is described as wanting to chop off Pippin’s Crown Jewels a ‘nobles’ (no balls) pun gets no reaction.

One wonders if the tassels attached to each character’s wrists represent her lifeblood, while they flutter in well-managed, if slightly stilted, dance routines. Hope of meaningful symbolism fades. This production is as convincing as the lighter which took several attempts to catch a flame, mainly because the material is too fickle to be presented without extravagant gymnastics. I do applaud CUMTS for taking on a challenging musical and look forward to seeing where they channel their precise comic timing and masterful deadpan yet vivacious delivery next.

Reviews by Jake A Ellamen

Greenside @ Royal Terrace

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★★★★
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★★★★
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★★★
Scottish National Portrait Gallery

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★★★★
C venues - C

Pippin

★★
Pleasance Courtyard

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★★★★

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The Blurb

An enigmatic troupe of performers enact the tale of Pippin, a young prince on a quest to lead an extraordinary life at any cost. As the adventure leads from throne room to battlefield to the wilderness in the blink of an eye, will Pippin be content to follow the troupe, or will he risk their wrath by leaving the script and taking control of his own story? Brought to life by the best of Cambridge's musical theatre talent, the walls between theatre and reality collapse in this immersive musical classic from the composer of Wicked.

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