Stephen Schwartz may usually find his name more closely associated to the Broadway and West End behemoth that is Wicked, but before the green witch came the young Prince facing an existential crisis. It’s this musical, Pippin, which marks the second production to be staged outdoors in the new Garden Theatre at The Eagle.
When another version of Pippin opened in London two years ago, it was hot on the heels of a Broadway spectacular, and much was made of how London’s production had created the same magic on a smaller scale. This version, through necessity rather than creative license, has had to scale down even further.
But it is a musical which allows for a degree of creativity, the script giving the director of the day an opportunity to set the tone the production takes. This is partly the reason it can be staged here with a cast of just six, the main characters also picking up the ensemble roles.
The path that director Steven Dexter takes feels more like a production of Hair, the Vauxhall air thick with the scent of incense, the costumes graffitied with peace signs, and braided and beaded hair replacing the more common vaudevillian mood.
This works well, particularly as the whole thing brims with breathtakingly energetic choreography from Nick Winston, the cast seeming to float their way from one scene to the next. It gives this Pippin a certain dreamlike, almost hallucinogenic, quality. What it lacks in expansive sets, or sizable cast, it regains through simple storytelling, stripping Pippin back to its very essence.
Schwartz’s score is certainly appealing, with some magically uplifting numbers. Roger O. Hirson’s book less so, and consists of a troupe of players welcoming a new actor to the role of Pippin, before telling us the story of the young Prince and his search for fulfillment. Thanks to the meta-nature of the piece, it’s more likely to appeal to the theatre geeks amongst us, while more casual audience members could find it all a touch bewildering.
The cast give it their all, Tsemaye Bob-Egbe brings us a whole new kind of leading player, one who seems less cruel but just as demanding. Joanne Clifton makes the most of that choreography, reminding us what made her a champ, but as she’s demonstrated on stage before there’s more to Clifton than dance, incredible vocals and a natural rapport with the audience make hers the performance of the night.
In the title role, Ryan Anderson is a joy to watch. His Pippin is tender and vulnerable but with a passionate streak. It is typically a character that the audience struggles to find empathy with, but in the hands of Anderson there’s no such problem, this Pippin is one to watch.
Staging something like Pippin, which is so often associated with spectacle, in a small garden theatre takes real nerve and artistic vision. Here it pays off, as the intimacy draws the audience in to this misty other-worldliness and leaves us spell bound by the spectacle of storytelling. In this little corner of the sky, Pippin reminds us what theatre is really about.
Pippin is at The Garden Theatre at The Eagle until 11th October. Tickets are on sale here.