Thursday, June 6, 2013

Album Review: PIPPIN

One of my earliest exposures to musical theatre was Pippin. When I was just a little kid, and my obsession with musicals was just beginning, I'd ransack my local library to find cast recordings of musicals I'd never heard of before. Some of them went over my head... such as Stephen Sondheim's Assassins and the original recording of Night of the Hunter. But one day, I discovered a VHS tape of the filmed production of Pippin starring William Katt, Chita Rivera, and the incomparable Ben Vereen (It also just so happened to be filmed in my hometown of Hamilton, at the theatre in which I now work). I watched it, and fell in love.

The music is simple, sure, but it was one of the first really 'meta' shows I'd seen. When the Finale came and The Leading Player began frantically stripping down the stage to its barest, my jaw was on the floor... I'd never seen anything like it before. When I heard about a Broadway revival, my interest was piqued. However, I was admittedly slightly turned off by the idea of a female Leading Player. Not at all because I'm sexist, but really just because Ben Vereen's revelatory performance was so iconic and so burned into my mind that I couldn't really picture anyone else doing it.

Enter Patina Miller: The woman who will make you say "Ben who?"

The new Broadway revival cast recording of Pippin, immortalized beautifully by my favourite label Sh-K-Boom/Ghostlight Records, is destined to become the definitive recording of the show. I remember picking up the original cast recording after seeing the filmed stage version and being so disappointed by how low-key everything sounded. Vereen tore it up live, but sounded so underwhelming to me on the album. This new recording captures all of the fun, thrills, and occasional chills that I remember Pippin for. Matthew James Thomas plays the title role and is in fine voice on the album... he truly sounds like a perfect choice for Pippin. Patina Miller, the new Leading Player, is a revelation. From the sounds of it, she's fully deserving of the Tony she's been nominated for. It was admittedly a bit disarming to hear all of the tunes I know so well in a different key, but you'll quickly forget about that once Miller opens her mouth and destroys, in the best possible way, Stephen Schwartz's iconic score.

About the score... Everything I disliked about it back then has been changed now, which was a refreshing and wonderful surprise. For instance, the lyrics to Extraordinary have been given a major overhaul, which I appreciated having hated the original lyrics. Other small changes occur, but for all intents and purposes, this is Schwartz's wonderful score as any old Pippin fan will remember it. I've honestly never been a major fan of Stephen Schwartz's work. Godspell is one of my favourite musicals, yes, but none of his other scores have really interested me. I've always had a soft spot for Pippin, though, with it's simple, catchy, and haunting pop score... and this new recording has caused me to fall in love with it in a way I never have before.

 Highlights include Matthew James Thomas' clear and energetic Corner of the Sky, the powerful Act I finale Morning Glow, Andrea Martin's show-stopping rendition of No Time At All, and the disturbingly chilling Finale (which has been stuck in my head since getting the recording). Many of these songs are, as I said, truly iconic and timeless, and none of the songs on this recording ever lose their buoyancy, even during some occasional long instrumental breaks. Terrence Mann and Rachel Bay Jones, as King Charlemagne and Catherine respectively, also have featured appearances and shine to the fullest.

There's honestly nothing wrong or bad about this recording. Fans of Pippin will be more than pleased... they'll be thrilled. And newcomers? They'll have found a perfect introduction to this wildly underrated musical.

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