Sunday, July 14

Pippin: 50th Anniversary Concert – Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

Packed full of Stephen Schwartz’s memorable songs, such as “Corner of the Sky” and “Magic To Do”, Pippin is a show that has been re-produced and re-imagined over the last 50 years around the world, including in the West End and on Broadway. At its heart there’s the simple tale of a young man, a prince, at a loss of what to do with his life, the curse of princes throughout history. Pippin is the son of King Charlemagne the Great and heir to the Frankish throne. He seeks fulfilment, believing that, as he’s extraordinary, he should find something extraordinary to achieve. In his attempts to break through this existential despair, he tries leading an army, but only succeeds in losing most of his men. Then he has a period of debauchery, but that leaves him empty.  Art and religion also fail to spark any feeling of fulfilment. When he realises that his father is a genocidal tyrant, he tries taking over the realm to lead with a more humane approach. But they are still embroiled in the Middle Ages Holy Wars, so no spoilers as to how that plan goes. The narrator, titled The Leading Player (Alex Newell), and her followers tempt Pippin towards a “grand finale” in which he makes a hero’s sacrifice. In this production, it’s not entirely clear what form that sacrifice will take, but it seems to be something to do with fire and throwing himself into the empty orchestra pit.

Almost panto-ish in its format (an observation not a criticism), Pippin breaks the fourth wall, the narrator (Alex Newell as The Leading Player) chides the actors; there’s audience participation, a villain in the form of Charlemagne (Cedric Neal), wicked stepmother Fastrada (Zizi Strallen), and kind older woman, Pippin’s grandmother Bertha (Patricia Hodge). This production of Pippin is presented as a concert version with a full, magnificent orchestra (the London Musical Theatre Orchestra, led by the energetic Chris Ma) and the ArtsED Choir as backdrop to the action. It is rather a semi-staged show than simply a concert production, with full performances in front of the orchestra.  It’s bright and breezy, hugely energetic and acrobatic, loud and sequined. Costume designer Polly Sullivan opts for a 1970s disco vibe with shiny catsuits, dresses and costumes, and a frilled basque for Fastrada that is straight out of a burlesque show. Joanna Goodwin’s choreography is bright with touches of Fosse, a joy to watch.

Photo: Pamela Raith Photography

The performances, coming from such musical theatre luminaries as Newell, Strallen and Lucie Jones (as sad widow Catherine) can only be described as phenomenal. A bit over-the-top at times and with some unnecessary vocal gymnastics, the singing can otherwise not be faulted.  Jac Yarrow makes a sweet Prince Pippin, by turns full of determination and despair, and then developing a lovely chemistry with Jones. Newell is a major presence as The Leading Player, narrating and directing the performers. 

This is the story of a gentle prince, eventually finding his fulfilment in the ordinary. Set against the backdrop of the Middle Ages and the Holy Wars, mass starvation and tyrannical rule, Pippin’s tale is an odd and slight narrative if contemplated too much, light and funny but with a dark heart. The peasants of the Middle Ages are unlikely to have been much concerned about Pippin’s existential angst.

Pippin: 50th Anniversary Concert played at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane for two special performances on 29th and 30th April.

Reviewer:  Carole Gordon

Reviewed: 29th April 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.