Told in an episodic, allegorical fashion, the central figure of Pippin inhabits a transparently unreal world, surrounded by a troupe of players who take on the roles of everyone he interacts with, all under the orchestrating eye of the Leading Player. The story travels quickly, as the naïve and self-centered young man seeks fulfillment in study, war, sex, sedition, despotism and only later in the simpler side of life. Fluidly staged, the production transports its locations and characters across a wide range of scenes with relatively minimal sets, costumes or props, relying instead on dynamic performance to weave its unconventional tale.
Pippin is the debut production of Peter Cousens’ Kookaburra, the new musical theatre company that has set itself the laudable task of revitalising the ailing fortunes of locally-produced musicals in Australia. It was therefore a little surprising that they should choose a comparatively lesser-known musical to launch their company, but the choice to round off their inaugural subscription season with the similarly obscure Company and Floyd Collins certainly suggests there is a strategy here. Perhaps Kookaburra has chosen these shows in order to distinguish themselves from the mainstream fare offered by the endless franchised productions from overseas like The Lion King et al., seemingly the only musicals one gets to see in Sydney, short of occasional STC offerings such as The Republic of Myopia and Urinetown, and of course the plethora of robust amateur musical societies in the suburbs. One can only hope that Pippin's lack of “brand recognition” will not hurt the company at the box office, because Kookaburra certainly deserves a chance to thrive.
If Pippin is anything to go by, thrive they will. Just about every aspect of this show was of the highest quality, with a uniformly excellent and thoroughly exuberant cast under the dazzling direction and choreography of veteran Ross Coleman. The necessarily sparse production design by Gabriella Tylesova and lighting by Trudy Dalgleish complemented Coleman’s energetic staging and allowed the performers themselves to drive the production.
Although the entire ensemble was first-rate, one must single out Sharon Millerchip who deftly balanced the wry humour and pathos of the player “acting” the role of Catherine. Derek Metzger as the vain Charles, Lisa Callingham as scheming stepmother Fastrada and Trisha Noble as the voluptuous grandmother Berthe all managed to dominate the stage in their respective numbers, and of course Matthew Robinson admirably filled the title role. The most fun character to watch (and, one suspects, to play) was that of the Mephistophelean and blatantly metatheatrical Leading Player, portrayed with seductive charm by Bert Labonte.
However, for all the wonderful talent, energy and quality of work that went into this show, the material itself sadly did nothing for me. Devoid of memorable songs and lacking an endearing lead character, Pippin has little to recommend it purely in and of itself. More a commercial than a critical success at the time, the original direction by the legendary Bob Fosse is credited as the main reason for Pippin’s initial popularity, and it’s easy to see why. In much the same fashion, everything about Kookaburra’s new production is excellent, except the musical itself.
The play’s very broad themes and mode of presenting them seems very much of its time, and despite the best efforts of everyone involved it feels dated rather than timeless. But there is admittedly a matter of taste in this; I’m personally quite partial to the ‘80s cult musical Chess, and one could hardly find a more dated piece than that tale of Cold War melodrama. Perhaps much of the appeal of such shows is nostalgic and intrinsically generational.
Kookaburra has promoted itself as the new “National Music Theatre Company”, and much is made in the programme of this being an “Australian” take on Pippin. Yet apart from one eponymous bird call there is little evidence of this. Indeed, it is strange then to hear several of the songs being sung in American accents, and Australian actor Bert Labonte even delivers all the Lead Player’s dialogue as though American. Unless the point was to associate the character’s infernal qualities with an American identity, it seemed a strange choice.
It is hard to give this wonderful production of a mediocre musical a bad rap; the enthusiasm and goodwill amongst the crowd on opening night was palpable, and one could really feel the strong desire for a new Australian company to succeed. Perhaps Pippin will find its niche amongst those less familiar with traditional musicals, or indeed those sick of them and looking for something different.
One hopes that it will be onward and upward for this extremely promising new company.
Book by Roger O. Hirson
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Venue: Sydney Theatre at Walsh Bay
Season: Tues – Sun, 10 April - 19 May
Tickets: from $28 with A res $75 concession $65
Bookings: Ticketek 1300 888 412 or www.ticketek.com | Sydney Theatre Box Office 9250 1980