Sunday, January 27, 2013

I admit it, I was wrong about Diane Paulus

Ta-da!  I have nothing new to say! Isn't that fabulous??? Photo: Michael J. Lutch.
For those of you have written in to ask, I did indeed go see Diane Paulus's production of Pippin at the A.R.T.  (I think it has closed by now; at any rate it sold out long ago.)

And I have to admit I was wrong about her.  

Yes!  (Bet you never thought you'd read that on the Hub Review, did you.)

You see - I thought Diane Paulus could direct Pippin.

And it turns out I was wrong.  Oh, so wrong.

Now I wonder if she can really direct anything.  I mean Pippin seemed so perfect for her!  PG-dirty, high-school-y, vaguely left-y, and with some lingering resonance as a cultural book-end for Hair, which Paulus made a solid (if not quite inspired) hit a few years back.  Indeed, Pippin is kind of the anti-Hair; back in the day, it was basically about the boomers withdrawing from their short-lived interest in political life, giving up on revolution, and settling down in the ex-urbs.

These days I'm not sure what it's about, and clearly neither is Diane.  Although to be fair, I can only really say that Paulus can't direct the first half (yes, I know in its premiere it was performed in one fell swoop - but the first half is probably the stronger half anyway).  You see I left at intermission. Sorry!  But I'm really ruthless when I've paid for my own ticket, and if a show is as empty as this one, I do NOT stick around - I have better things to do (like check out the chocolate at Burdick's).

Now, I know what you're thinking - it's not her fault: Pippin is bad.  And, okay. It's certainly not, well, good - but it's also not that bad.  I've seen it work (and honestly, it played for five years on Broadway for a reason). Of course Stephen Schwartz's score is terrible - and I mean DREADFUL - and the plot is, if anything, even worse.  The storyline is just whacked, utterly a-historical and ridiculous (there's even a resurrection), and the tone is relentlessly immature, basically because Pippin began its life as a college revue, and it has never entirely shaken off that undergraduate perspective - even though Bob Fosse tried his damnedest to transform it into a dark Brechtian fable for its Broadway run.

Now Fosse is one of the major cultural figures of the late twentieth century - and I'd argue he almost succeeded in making Pippin worthwhile.  Certainly for its day it seemed edgy, with orgies and Monty-Python-esque battles and an African-American "leading player" who all but begged for applause while hinting at a buried hostility behind his Mr.-Bo-Jangles mask.  No wonder Fosse banned Schwartz from rehearsals (tellingly, Paulus reportedly brought him back in); he was ruthlessly subverting Schwartz's schmaltz with a viciously cynical subtext.  

The trouble is, I think our familiarity with Fosse has made it hard to remember the sardonic, de-stabilizing atmosphere his work once breathed.  This whole show, with all its "ideals" and sentimental tropes, is just a kind of sexual sale, his trademarked moves whispered; I'm the pimp and you're the john. Any questions?

But Paulus's attempt to resuscitate Pippin's Fosse-ography falls bizarrely flat, because that sense of challenge is completely missing from her work (and maybe from her mind).  To be fair, perhaps any earnest pop faith in musical theatre is so far in the past that now half the Fosse equation is gone forever.  And don't get me wrong - as always, Paulus proves herself an apt pupil and a dedicated Harvard-level student.  She worked really, really hard on this, you can tell, and to many that means she deserves an A; and she's very open and honest about her lack of any fresh insight or angle on the material - she signals right up-front that she is bringing nothing original to the party.  Indeed, the show opens with a looming image of Fosse's shadow (and all but precisely apes a few of his most famous numbers).  

And yet somehow the whole thing is boring as hell, because Paulus is working at cross-purposes with herself, and doesn't understand Fosse's own conflicted attitude toward the hard sell - I mean honestly, how could she have brought Stephen Schwartz back to consult on the subversion of his own schtick? In the end, Fosse wanted the theatre to be more than high-end prostitution; I think actually he longed for innocence.  And let's be honest - Paulus doesn't.  She just wants to make the sale.  She quite desperately wants to make the sale.  That's all there is for her - the ka-ching.

And you know - that's okay, I guess; you can't really fault her morally because she just seems - well, kind of beyond morals.  I used to get upset with her dumbing-down of Shakespeare, or her slurs against Gershwin - but Pippin made me I understand those moves were just business as usual.  Even sleaze doesn't exist aesthetically for her; she doesn't get it.  She doesn't really understand what she herself is doing.

But like I said, she works hard.  What an effective manager!  And she has certainly built a gigantic whirligig of a production; it will no doubt seem the most dazzling iteration yet of the New-York-Vegas-tourist-theatre-trap when it opens on Broadway this spring (yes, this was always really a commercial show; Paulus just took advantage of the Massachusetts taxpayer for its try-out).  Indeed, sometimes it seemed that every single corner of the Loeb stage had been diligently filled with meaningless spectacle.  Paulus enlisted "Les 7 Doigts de la Main," the millennial Montreal circus troupe, to bring some Cirque-du-Soleil va-va-voom to Fosse's traveling-players conceit, and they did add spectacle, and how - so much so that they all but overwhelmed the slim spine of the musical.  

But if you've seen Les Doigts before (they've been through town three times by now), you've already seen all their best bits, and somehow their virtuosic chill is more bracing in their own work.  If you're from Topeka, of course, you'll be thrilled.  (Or from Harvard, I might add - as I left the lobby, I heard one Harvard blue-hair commenting, "Who are these young acrobats?  They're just wonderful!"  Which is why they call life at Harvard "island living.")

I will say the show had Andrea Martin (who actually gets up on the trapeze!).  We will always love Andrea Martin.  So there's that.  And the great Charlotte d'Amboise, alone among the performers, brought some real sizzle to her Fosse.  But Pippin and his Leading Player were just blanks - talented blanks, but blanks - and if you ain't got them, and you ain't got a director, well . . .

At least the Burdick's fudge was really good.


  1. _"And you know - that's okay, I guess; you can't really fault her morally because she just seems - well, kind of beyond morals. I used to get upset with her dumbing-down of Shakespeare, or her slurs against Gershwin - but Pippin made me I understand those moves were just business as usual. Even sleaze doesn't exist aesthetically for her; she doesn't get it. She doesn't really understand what she herself is doing."_

    Wish I could have said it half as well. (Except I maintain that you damn well can blame her.) Thank you!

  2. Unfortunately Burdicks was closed when we went to see Pippin at New Year and so I stayed right to the end. Vapid is the term I would use. Nice tricks though. Took superficiality to a whole new level - it's been a long time since I had to actively tune out the story and cling onto the spectacle.