If someone had told me six months ago my next review would be a musical revival in a gazebo next to Vauxhall train station, it may have raised an eyebrow. But, these are strange times for the arts (the National is doing a pantomime!), and with a sleek and well-wrought new version of Pippin at the Garden Theatre in London, we're back.
The 2020 production is one that hasn't been seen in the UK before – a six-person, 90-minute ride that harks back to the award-winning musical's origins as a student production. Composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz has gone on to refine, augment and re-tool the show, which was brought into the mainstream by legendary director Bob Fosse, but the bare bones of the classic are all here in Stephen Dexter's no-nonsense staging.
For those that haven't yet experienced the piece, it follows a group of players telling the story of young prince Pippin, who is searching for his place in the world. Bouncing from wars to fornication, religion to art, otium to negotium, regicide to rule, the son of King Charlemagne chunders along with an intense sense of dissatisfaction. The stakes aren't all that high (stroppy teen wanting to understand what life means) but there's much to revel in here.
With a hippy-esque aesthetic from designer David Shields, Pippin has been pared back significantly (compared to the 2013 circus vibes that Diane Paulus injected into the Broadway revival, this is much more lo-fi). The tunes, overseen by musical director Michael Bradley, are performed with gusto – letting Schwartz's typically refined melodies do all the required lifting.
But the book still retains some of those student-y vibes – pathos isn't so much well-wrought as it is whacked around the head, while a much more truncated second act hurries through Pippin's emotional journey faster than a Fosse dance routine. Some metatheatrical whimsy brings a few chuckles, but the performances certainly stand up more than the story.
Ryan Anderson has a solid stab at bringing some sort of charm to the titular figure, desperate, in a Gynt-esque fashion, to seek out his life's meaning. Naive yet stubborn to a point of petulance, Pippin has all the great tunes like "Corner of the Sky" and, in Dexter's production with choreographer Nick Winston, some great moves which Anderson pull off with ease, but is much harder to invest in in this abbreviated vision.
His turn is helped no end by the rest of the cast – the show truly is an ensemble achievement. Joanne Clifton has two rollicking numbers with "No Time At All" and "Spread a Little Sunshine", bringing the audience to a sing-song in the former. Harry Francis is a source of incessant energy – balancing a turn as the dim-witted Lewis (Pippin's half brother) with a magnificent appearance in a bristling tribute to Fosse's famous "Manson Trio" alongside Clifton and Tsemaye Bob-Egbe's assured compère and eventually antagonistic Leading Player. Dan Krikler has spades of fun as Pippin's father Charlemagne, especially in the joyfully satirical number "War Is a Science", while perhaps the most nuanced performance is given by Tanisha-Mae Brown as widow Catherine, raising her son (and his pet duck) on a large estate with pained sincerity. Considering it's Brown's professional debut, she's surely one to watch once more shows begin to re-emerge.
In a time when most venues are closed, lights are dimmed and artists are out of work – a chance to revisit where Schwartz's musical first started before it became a big, bombastic spectacle is a nice tonic. Communal storytelling filtered and distilled down to its bare, wonderful elements.
For anyone craving a night chock full of top-notch musical talent in the midst of a pandemic, you won't go far wrong here.