Full disclosure time: I have been mildly obsessed by Pippin - a 1972 Broadway musical that became of the longest running musicals of its decade but was a fast fade when it came to London’s Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1973 (running for just 85 performances) - ever since I first saw it as a young teenager growing up in South Africa in the late 70s.
I still treasure the original South African cast recording I have of that production, and seriously consider “Corner of the Sky” from Stephen Schwartz’s lovely score for the show to be one of my all-time favourite theatre songs.
While Schwartz is currently riding high once again as composer of the massively overblown hit Broadway musical Wicked, it’s a pleasure to re-encounter this much smaller ‘concept’ show, in altogether more modest surroundings, that perfectly suit its quirky charms.
The Union Theatre, a tiny but versatile ‘found’ space beneath a railway arch in Southwark that is dripping in atmosphere, has been carving out an impressive little niche for making musical discoveries and re-discoveries over the last few years with pint-sized productions of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret and the London premiere of Michael John LaChiusa’s The Wild Party. It now comes up trumps again with a production of serious ambition and proper fringe daring that brings the kind of ‘rough theatre’ magic to this musical that is all to do with conjuring effects (and some emotion) from thin air.
In “Magic to Do” - an opening number that, like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’s “Comedy Tonight” is both an invitation and a promise – we’re invited to come and waste an hour or two as we join the cast on their “anecdotic revue”. Like Chicago, another later show that would also be originally crafted by master Broadway director/choreographer Bob Fosse, this is a musical that propels its story along a series of vaudeville-like turns, as it follows its title character seeking a purpose and fulfilment for his life.
Along the way, he encounters a score of complex and ravishing beauty, and even if Roger O Hirson’s book doesn’t always support it effortlessly along the way, another song arrives before you have too much time to ponder its inconsequentiality.
Though Sacha Regan and Ben De Wynter’s jointly produced and directed production may be occasionally ragged, there’s an abundance of likeable enthusiasm that more than compensates for the odd flat note. Daniel Lane is a vulnerably appealing Pippin, and there are excellent contributions from Andrew Whitlaw’s commanding Leading Player and Jasper Hone’s robust stepbrother to Pippin.
- Mark Shenton