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'Pippin' is back, and surrounded by Broadway buzz

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Photo -   This undated publicity photo provided by American Repertory Theater shows Patina Miller as the Leading Player in a production of "Pippin," at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. (AP Photo/ American Repertory Theater, Michael J. Lutch)
This undated publicity photo provided by American Repertory Theater shows Patina Miller as the Leading Player in a production of "Pippin," at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. (AP Photo/ American Repertory Theater, Michael J. Lutch)
Entertainment,Theater

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) — "Everything has its season, everything has its time," goes a famous song from the musical "Pippin." Well, maybe, but for the many fans of that '70s Stephen Schwartz hit, a return to Broadway has been overdue for years.

Now those fans may get their wish. An ambitious revival that fuses the famous Bob Fosse choreography with the daring physical world of circus is in previews at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. And before it even opened, it was surrounded by Broadway buzz, with word that producers were seeking a theater on the Great White Way, perhaps for the spring.

Director Diane Paulus certainly has an enviable track record. Her revivals of both "Hair" and "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" have not only gone to Broadway but have won Tonys for best revival of a musical. And to judge from the enthusiastic reaction at a recent preview in Cambridge, audiences are liking what they see.

It helps, of course, that there's so much nostalgia out there for the show, a whimsical coming-of-age story set in medieval times that opened in 1972 and ran for five years. Directed and choreographed by the masterful Fosse, it starred Ben Vereen as the Leading Player, an emcee-like role that won him a best-actor Tony. (Fosse, who died in 1987, won Tonys for direction and choreography.)

Paulus herself, a little girl during the run, was one of its ardent fans. "It made its mark on me," she says. "I knew that cast album by heart. I sang all the songs with my friends."

Four decades later, give or take a few years, Paulus was looking for her next project. Schwartz had come to her with another show, and during the conversation, she raised the subject of "Pippin," which is still performed by countless school groups and regional troupes. "I said, 'BY the way...'" she quips.

Schwartz liked the idea, Paulus was excited — but she needed a hook. The task was to modernize and reinvigorate it. And then it hit her: Circus. Specifically, the hugely physical style of a Montreal circus company, Les 7 Doigts de la Main (literally, the seven fingers of the hand).

"I wanted to put a unique acrobatic language onstage," Paulus says. "A light bulb went off." She spoke to the circus company's co-founder, Gypsy Snider, who noted that being "extraordinary" — Pippin's aspiration — is also the aspiration of every circus artist. (Snider has choreographed the circus parts of the show, and Chet Walker, who was in the original "Pippin," has choreographed the dance parts in Fosse style.)

There was also the question of casting. Vereen, especially, had made his role rather iconic. But, Paulus thought, there was nothing in the script that said the Leading Player had to be a man. She consulted with Schwartz, who concurred. All she needed was someone who could convey the power of seduction as well as Vereen.

And so, Paulus's Leading Player ended up being a woman — Patina Miller, the ebullient Tony-nominated star of "Sister Act," in which she played Deloris, the Whoopi Goldberg role. The surprise was not, of course, that Miller could sing and act. The surprise was that she could dance.

"I don't call myself a dancer, but I think this sort of dancing suits my body very well," says Miller. "I guess I SHOULD call myself a dancer." Paulus says Miller is "has an incredible facility for movement" — something that certainly comes across in the famous "Manson Trio" dance sequence.

Then there was the title role. Pippin is the young son of Charlemagne, and heir to the throne, but that's not enough for him: He's desperate to find a meaningful role in life (his own "Corner of the Sky," to quote his opening song.) On Broadway, John Rubinstein (son of pianist Arthur) imbued the role with a sweet, almost absent-minded innocence. Paulus saw droves of actors, and chose ... Spider-Man.

That would be Matthew James Thomas, the young British actor who played Peter Parker several times a week in the original company of "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," as a backup to Reeve Carney. Paulus says Thomas displayed just the right mix of vocal power, physical ability, and introspectiveness.

"He has soul," Paulus says. "Pippin has a deep soul. And Matthew is fearless — he'll do anything physical."

Thomas says the physical challenges of "Pippin," in which he does things like jump through hoops — literally — and sing while scaling and descending poles, are more daunting than those of "Spider-Man."

"As Spider-Man I was wired the whole time," says the 24-year-old actor, munching on an energy bar to stay fueled on a recent nippy Cambridge morning. "Here, it's just my own body." He was facing a full day of rehearsals — Paulus is still making changes — and then an exhausting performance at night, during which he never leaves the stage.

The two are joined by a starry supporting cast. Virtually everyone has a Tony or was nominated for one. That includes Terrence Mann ("The Addams Family," ''Beauty and the Beast," the original "Cats") as the king, and Charlotte d'Amboise ("A Chorus Line," ''Jerome Robbins' Broadway") as the sexy stepmother.

And it includes the gifted comic actress Andrea Martin ("Young Frankenstein," ''My Favorite Year," many others) as Berthe, the grandmother, a role made famous on Broadway by Irene Ryan. If Berthe's anthem "No Time at All" stopped the show on Broadway, it's safe to say Martin's, er, enhanced version stops it even colder in the A.R.T. production (to say more would be to spoil the fun.)

Though the show seems destined for Broadway, if the stars align, Paulus and her cast are trying to focus for now on perfecting it for an early January official opening (the run ends Jan. 20.) They're also trying to avoid the obvious trap: Thinking too much about living up to expectations.

"You're always going to get people who come in and expect to see what they saw years ago," says Miller. "I'm not Ben Vereen." In fact, to make that point, she at first resisted the costume she was given — a slinky, black, curve-hugging tuxedo-like number — because it looked too much like Vereen's.

Then she saw how good she looked in it.

"I decided it works," she says with a smile.

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www.americanrepertorytheater.org

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