There are only a few things in life that you can count on, and one of them is that you will wholeheartedly enjoy the fabulous entertainment of a John Frost musical. As Australia’s most prolific and successful theatre producer, having produced almost 200 productions around the world, he consistently delivers big theatre with a touch of magic. And don't we all need a little bit (or a lot) of that in our lives right now. His latest production, with Suzanne Jones, is PIPPIN.
PIPPIN AUSTRALIA regaled us at the red carpet premiere in Sydney last night Thursday 3 December 2020 with the audience standing in ovation for the outstanding show, and commemorating the return of musical theatre in Australia.
With book by Roger O. Hirson, and timeless music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, Pippin reimagines the realm of King Charlemagne, and the life of his first born son PIPPIN - a wanderer, who is looking for his purpose.
Originally directed and choreographed in 1972 by Bob Fosse, the seven times Tony Award winning musical comedy (as it was then called) is Fosse at his prime. Four of these Tony Awards were won in 2013 including Best Musical Revival as we see it produced today. Of the three Tony Awards of 1973 that were won by PIPPIN, Fosse won two - for Best Direction of a Musical and Best Choreography. As a choreographer his dance innovation included jazz hands, outwardly turning arms, inward pointing feet, drooped shoulders and sexually provocative moves, those hip thrusts. Fosse also contributed to the PIPPIN libretto and admitted that he added the suicide scene removing the expected musical big finale from the text. Some say that part of the magic of PIPPIN, with its philosophical questioning, searching doubts, sexual escapades and dark moments, is because perhaps it emulated the original director's own life.
"I don't think you would recognise the original material that [original producer] Stuart Ostrow brought me a year ago" Fosse discussed with the New York Times in 1972.
Who else but Fosse would give Pippin an onstage bed to romp in?
This revival is magnificent. With its circus staging and costumes, trapeze swings, acrobatics and even hoola hoops, the contemporary production of PIPPIN is everything from the original show, and more. Well, with the exception of the 1972 psychedelic drug references. And 2020 morphs his relationship with Catherine from six months to twelve.
All of this combined with the performances of our beloved Australian big name stars, Ainsley Melham, Kerri-Anne Kennerley, Simon Burke, and Lucy Maunder reassures us that we are still alive and once again thriving.
The contemporary PIPPIN was first performed on 5 December 2012 at the American Repertoire Theatre, Harvard University, with choreography by Chet Walker who visions with integrity the style of Bob Fosse, and circus creation by Gypsy Snider of Les 7 doigts de la main. In that same year 2012, Ainsley Melham who stars as Pippin graduated in musical theatre at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. In between then and now, he has shot to stardom in the title role of Aladdin on Broadway for Disney Theatrical Productions and in London on the West End, following his success as Aladdin in Australia. Melham is Australia's latest superstar, and holds the role of Pippin between his fingers, owning it with consummate ease, making us want to take care of him, to hold his hand through his travels and troubles. Melham's opening night performance was faultless, carried out with both vulnerability and nuance, standing in the subtlety as well as the power of his role.
For our 21st century purposes, that 8th century King of the Lombards, King of the Franks, Emperor of the Romans, steps out of history and is modernised. Let's just call him Charles. He is enormous in accomplishment, yet delivered by Simon Burke as a towering melange that mixes arrogance with clumsiness, unyielding steadfastness and clarity with confusion, tenderness and good humour. His performance confirms his experience; Burke has been acting since 1976 at age 13, and holding our attention on TV and on stage ever since. And he just keeps getting better and better. Just when you thought there was nowhere else for him to go, Burke climbs even higher and entertains us with his larger than life vaudeville Charlemagne.
With her sensational polished va va voom performance as leading player, it is easy to see that Gabrielle McClinton is reprising her role, after playing it on Broadway. Every step, every gesture is defined and accurate. Casting throughout fits to a tailored tee, leads Euan Doidge and Leslie Bell, the four boys rotating as Theo, and chorus of Players and Swings all also shine.
Yet right up there with the sensitive delivery by Ainsley Melham, commanding presence of Simon Burke, exquisite craft of Gabrielle McClinton, mischievous plotting of Doidge and Bell, and the loving co-dependency of Lucy Maunder, I reckon the 'man of the match' is actually a woman. The crowd cheered for Kerri-Anne as she started her spotlight. Our iconic Australian TV legend was in her element, obviously lapping up every moment, singing and dancing and giving her fans her ultimate best - trapeze swing duo included.
PIPPIN is currently on stage at the Lyric Theatre, The Star Sydney.