Pippin is the first major musical to return to Sydney theatres, with distancing restrictions easing just before the show’s opening. The show’s offering of colour and magic are perfect medicine for our current climate. But, on another hand, its somewhat confusing premise and over-reliance on smoke and mirrors are yet another symptom of them.
This contradictory experience hits you upon arrival, with a rabbit-warren of temporary aisles corralling people through what feels like an airport check-in, only to be greeted at the end with a branded Pippin face mask. The pre-recorded, heavy-handed COVID safe announcements only further confuse when seated in a full row while being requested to keep the aforementioned mask on throughout.
The confusion continues on stage, as a circus troupe begin to perform a story about the middle ages, with ‘new performer’ Pippin (Ainsley Melham) freshly arrived from college. It turns out Pippin is also a prince to King Charlemagne (Simon Burke), and is yearning to find meaning in his life and become extraordinary. Throughout the first act, he attempts to prove himself at war, engage in some heavy promiscuity at the instructions of his grandmother and then kill his father, all against a backdrop of trapeze, acrobatics and a large amount of high-end visual trickery. It’s all very strange.
The second act however kicks it down a gear, allowing the show-within-the-show to breathe and the book’s meta narrative to come to the front. Pippin, having eschewed the concept of being King is now living with widow Catherine (Lucy Maunder) and her son Theo (played on opening night by Ryan Yeats). Wrestling with the idea of a quiet life, the show’s narrator – a character called the Leading Player, played by Gabrielle McClinton – begins to break the narrative, directing the show as it unfolds. As Catherine begins to veer off script, the Leading Player vies for more control of Pippin’s decisions, in a sort of Kaufman-esque arch.
Much was publicised about the show’s controversial casting choices of both Kerri-Anne Kennerley (as grandmother Berthe) and American McClinton, having been imported from the shows Broadway and US regional tour. Kennerley surprises all with a daring trapeze act in her short stage time, while McClinton, although fine in the role, leans to a more robotic presentation of Leading Player, leaving little room for nuance. This is particularly prevalent as she controls the show’s own implosion in the second act; a missed opportunity for humour and pathos which ultimately allows Maunder’s Catherine to steal much of the show. Pippin’s producers were quick to declare an extensive local search for a female of colour (as prescribed for the role of Leading Player) bore no fruits, however – outside of a commanding stage presence – the role requires no additional skills that surely could not have been found in a local player.
Melham presents a cheeky, boy-next-door Pippin, with a soaring voice and a few daredevil moments to match. The performance, while captivating, does stay in one lane for the most part, however. The ensemble – a mix of acrobats and standard triple-threats – form the strongest part of the show, with a mix of daring feats and some dazzling magical trickery that’s rarely seen on stage these days. Once the dazzle subsides, however, it’s a shame these feats of trickery really only seem to exist to hide a thin score of largely MOR 70s pop.
The show’s ultimate metaphor exists in the circus of one’s imagination. A place where we can build a stage and create our own extraordinary. At times, the circus can take over, pushing us to feel we are not performing our best and pulling us down when we do not reach our perceived potential. In a year with much struggle and uncertainty, and when mental health is at crisis point, perhaps – while purely though accident – Pippin is a perfect musical for our times.
Besides, what’s the harm of a little colour and magic once in a while.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Pippin is running at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre at The Star until January 31st. For more information and to purchase tickets head HERE.
Header Image: Brian Geach