~~~Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media
DETROIT — Revolution hit hard inside the Fisher Building on Tuesday, June 9th, 2015. Inside the cozy confines of the Fisher Theatre, the revival of the brilliant Bob Fosse’s “Pippin” of 1972 opened before a sold-out audience of Metro Detroiters. “Pippin” piqued their interest immediately and sustainingly with a plethora of brio and a bounteous portion of Cirque du Soleil-like panache – all the while paying homage both to the great artist Bob Fosse, the greater Charlemagne, King of the Franks, and his first-born son, the rebel-turned-exiled-and-ostracized monk, Pippin the Hunchback.
Frankly, the musical doesn’t quite follow the Wikipedia account of Pippin the Hunchback; and, since everyone knows that everything on Wikipedia is absolutely, unreservedly, and utterly true, I can only attribute this to artistic license; but that’s okay. As Marshall McLuhan said in Understanding Media, “The serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity, just because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception.” (Gee, thanks, Marshall!)
Later in the musical, Fosse’s artistic heirs, choreographer Chet Walker and director Diane Paulus try to share this awareness of sense perception with the audience in a noticeably post-modern and deconstructionist grand finale. As Jack Handy would say, “But that’s okay.” So, instead of ending with an Eliotian bang or whimper, the musical ends with, well, you tell me, comment after this review after you go see it. LOL! Get your post-modernism on, people!
Wikipedia says Pippin was named after Charlemagne’s father, Pepin the Short, who was also King of the Franks; of Charlemagne’s eight known ancestors, two others were also named Pepin, or Pippin, as it were. (Another was the great Charles Martel, famous for winning the Battle of Tours that saved Europe from the Moors.) So, it was a great honor when Charlemagne thusly named his first-born son, our protagonist and generally-good guy, Pippin – the heir apparent to the throne of the great Carolingian Empire.
When Pippin perceptively perceives his half-brother Carloman (known as “Lewis” in the musical) being groomed to succeed their fickle father, Pippin leads a rebellion to seize power by ferocious force – up to and including assassination.
Failing fabulously, the fallen-from-grace hunchback was forced to “get thee to a monastery” for life, and was even humiliatingly tonsured, i.e., had his hair sheered off – but for a ring resembling one of Saturn’s famous retinue. Fortunately, his life was spared, unlike many of his somewhat shady cohorts.
Diane Paulus, following Fosse’s formidable direction of the 70’s production, presents Pippin’s exile in an interesting and Tony-worthy way. Not to be catty, but I bet the original Broadway show in 1972 was a tad better. Fosse was a true master. No offense, Diane.
The musical tweaks this absolutely faithful and unassailable account (but for troll attacks on Wikipedia that are usually quickly corrected) and has Pippin, instead of becoming a reluctant monk, remain free and unmonked, though riddled, even saddled, by existential angst. It’s a brilliant re-imagining, reshaping the story of Pippin while still being somewhat figuratively faithful to the historical account of the fallen hunchback. (Incidentally, Pippin is not portrayed as a hunchback in the musical, enabling him, fortunately for us, to take an active part in the abundant acrobatics.)
Pippin, played brilliantly by the nimble Sam Lips (who looks a bit like James Franco) eventually surrenders the crown rather nebulously, and settles down for a spate with Catherine, played magnificently by Kristine Reese, whose stunning down-to-Earth beauty and performance literally steal every scene she’s in. Ms. Reese puts the poy in poignant! Mamma Mia!
Catherine, using her son, Theo (played by Jake Berman), as a sort of prop or gimmick, and supplementing that with a liberal dollop of love, is finally able to rid Pippin of his debilitating existential angst, and the musical revs back up for its grand finale.The finale is, like I said earlier, a sort of post-modern deconstruction of the Broadway musical form in Fossean fashion. Pippin, though, rises above all his angst, triumphing over his demons of depression.
One leaves the Fisher frankly feeling fresh, frolicsome, and fantastically revived, especially if you find your Fiat or Ferrari unstolen on the mean streets of Detroit. Remember to go to Lafayette Coney Island if you want the best coney in Detroit after the show! If anyone tells you to go to American Coney Island, tell them to go to Halifax!
The historical Charlemagne, from the great American historical novelist Harold Lamb’s account in Charlemagne: The Legend and the Man, won almost all of Western Europe in the name of the Holy Roman Empire that his ancestors hadn’t already held. His family’s ancestral empire was alternatively called the Carolingian Empire after his reign. To secure his holdings, Charlemagne ignominiously and compulsively destroyed all the indigenous religions of Europe’s temples and texts, not to mention thousands of their practitioners. Odinist temples and other pagan temples were utterly wiped off the face of Europe. The Ottoman Empire later repeated this to all the churches of Bulgaria and other places, maybe Greece, too. Perhaps it was karma at work?
Odinism had a bit of luck, however. The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturlusson was spared serendipitously only because the author was from Iceland, fortuitously far from Charlemagne’s nefarious reach. It’s an interesting read, as are the Viking sagas that are still extant such as Egil’s Saga, also from Iceland.
Fearing for his legacy, it was frankly fitting that Charlemagne would want to pick the best of his litter of sons by his many wives and concubines. A lowly hunchback would not do for the Carolingian throne; even though Pippin was loved by his father, he was obviously seen as unfit for such a single honor. Carloman/Lewis was an able soldier. Pippen….eh….not so much……
Pippin, acutely aware by all accounts of the handwriting on the wall, and contemptuous of his father’s acumen, rightfully rebels – becoming for all time the poster boy for disinheritance and righteous indignation redeemed by action, viz., taking arms against a sea of slight.
Pippin saw the great power wielded by his father as he crushed the Visigoths and other opposing armies, not to mention Odinism and the other indigenous European religions. On a hunch, he thought that might be fun to do himself. But neither he nor his father came close to the modern Kingship (and soon to be Queenship?) that is the POTUS. As Marshall McLuhan said in Chapter 1 of Understanding Media, “And many have held that the American Presidency has become very much more personal and monarchical than any European monarch ever could be.” (pp. 29)(Paperback). Imagine that!
In closing, “Pippin” is a fun, circus-like, artistically-rendered portrait of a man who wants to find purpose and meaning to his life. As a developmentally-disabled man I once worked with, and who had a heart of gold used to say a lot, “There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with that at all.”
So, go see it already! Tell them Bobby sent you. It’s trip and a half!
Lastly, honorable mention should go to the Leading Player, Lisa Karlin, who ably fills in for the under-the-weather Sasha Allen. Lisa plays the role first fashioned by Tony Award-winner Ben Vereen back in 1972 as a sort of sadistic dominatrix in an exhilarating and somewhat exasperating way – never giving Pippin a break, keeping him striving inexorably toward his destiny. Get well soon, Sasha!
Tickets for PIPPIN range from $39 – $95 (includes parking and facility fees) and are on sale at all Ticketmaster locations, by phone at 1-800-982-2787, online at www.broadwayindetroit.com or www.ticketmaster.com, and at the Fisher Theatre box office starting at 11:00 AM.