Life is a circus, not only for the characters in “Pippin,” the musical revival that opens Dec. 5 at American Repertory Theater, but also for the actors preparing the show.
At a recent rehearsal in New York before the company decamped to Cambridge, the dancers were learning an eight-count phrase, while a team of acrobats balanced in impossible formations around them. Off stage, the space was strewn with unzipped dance bags spilling extra tights and leg-warmers onto the chairs and half empty coffee cups on the floor.
Director Diane Paulus has re-imagined the story of the young man in search of the meaning of life and set it under the Big Top, complete with hanging trapezes, poles for climbing and a second-story platform where a juggler sends props flying up in the air. A troupe of acrobats from Montreal - Les 7 doigts de la Main (also known as 7 Fingers) - directed by Gypsy Snider, add technical skill and excitement to the production
The cast of show-biz veterans also has been asked to stretch their considerable talents, including Terrence Mann (the original Javert in “Les Miserables”) and Charlotte d’Amboise (“Sweet Charity” and “Chicago”). The couple, who are married in real life, appear as the 8th century King Charlemagne and his Empress, dad and step-mom to Prince Pippin. Andrea Martin (“Young Frankenstein”; “My Big, Fat Greek Wedding”) will be Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother; Patina Miller (“Sister Act”) appears as the Leading Player.
Young British actor Matthew James Thomas has been cast in the role of Pippin, and can be counted on for some high jinks, minus the wires that dangled him over Broadway audiences in “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark.” He left the show after two years of sharing the lead Spidey role to join the A.R.T. company.
The musical chronicles the coming-of-age adventures of Prince Pippin, heir to Charlemagne’s throne. The audience follows him on his quest, as he becomes disillusioned by the supposed glories of war and the compromises of political power. Mann believes that “Pippin is a moral fable,” combining “myths, legends and heroes. You take a page out of [the author] Joseph Campbell. Man is innocent until he falls to temptation. The play is about rites of passage, the indomitability of the human spirit. It’s not about sin. It’s how you rise out of sin.” Aside from the philosophy, Mann agrees, “It’s the music that drives the show.”
D’Amboise, who trained as a dancer from childhood before leaving the ballet studio for Broadway, was front and center at the rehearsal. She was leading the chorus for one of the show’s hit songs, “Magic To Do,” behind choreographer Chet Walker, who had been a performer in the original “Pippin.” Directed by Bob Fosse, the Stephen Schwartz-Roger O. Hirshon musical opened in New York in 1972, and lasted nearly 2,000 performances to garner nine Tony Awards. The show has not had a major professional revival until this one, despite being a mainstay of high school productions for decades. D’Amboise performed in one when she was a student at the Professional Children’s School in New York.
“The choreography is like Fosse’s but Chet has his own style,” d’Amboise said, before returning to the floor to punch out the signature Fosse steps. As if a gun had gone off behind her, she splayed out her fingers, jutted her hips, and snapped her head while moving in an elaborate, syncopated strut.
Mann, who was sidelined for a week by an injury he suffered while trying to ride a unicycle, was watching from the sidelines. “I am dancing in my heart and in my head,” he said.
At a corner of the stage behind d’Amboise, 12-year-old Weston actor Andrew Cekala was learning to balance on top of a large rubber ball by moving his feet in quick little steps. Although he’s the only child in the show, Mann and d’Amboise have 9- and 10-year-old daughters who have been attending rehearsals. The couple plans to bring them to Cambridge, where a tutor will help them keep up their school work. “The acrobats are like their family,” d’Amboise said. “What kid wouldn’t want to join the circus?” Mann asked.