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Review: Pippin - 50th Anniversary Concert (Theatre Royal Drury Lane)

Review by Daz Gale


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2024 has seen the rise in musical theatre concerts with a growing number of shows taking over grand theatres such as the Palladium and Drury Lane for one or two nights. This year has seen a wide range of them and a real variance in quality too. One of the most exciting hoping to find its own corner of the West End is a huge 50th anniversary celebration of Stephen Schwartz's revered classic Pippin. With expectations running high, this production certainly had magic to do to live up to it - spoiler alert, they more than managed it!



Premiering on Broadway in 1972, Pippin made it to the West End the following year, only running for 85 performances. Since then, the show has enjoyed multiple revivals in smaller theatres such as Southwark Playhouse and, most recently, an acclaimed production at Charing Cross Theatre in 2021, but has never been seen in a house as large as Theatre Royal Drury Lane… until now. The premise of Pippin sees a group of players tell the story of the titular young prince who is looking for some meaning to his life. However, as they interact with the prince and move his story along, it becomes clear they have their own reasons for pushing him into a certain direction.


Roger O. Hirson’s book may be hard to follow at times as the level of performance within a performance isn’t always clearly defined, which can provoke differing responses to the show. I have seen several previous productions of the show and responded differently each time, sometimes feeling underwhelmed and others enjoying the show but never quite resonating with it. That all changed with this production – billed as a concert, it was so much more than that, tapping into Hirson’s book to pull out all of the comedy and maximise the impact of the story.



Jonathan O’Boyle’s inspired direction needs to be commended for that. From the inspired opening moment where Jac Yarrow’s Pippin appears in the middle of an audience as if he has just been selected as a contestant on The Price Is Right, you got the sense this classic show was in safe hands with a team who clearly understood the story and how best to tell it, keeping elements of it faithful while not being afraid to freshen it up with some bold and unashamedly ambitious choices. This was apparent by the end of opening number ‘Magic To Do’ which, as well as exquisite staging, had showered the audience in confetti. To say this production had me in the palm of its hands quicker than any show in a long time would be an understatement.


There can be a real differing interpretation of what these musical theatre concerts can be, from conventional stand and sing with no choreography to fully staged spectaculars. Pippin falls somewhere in the middle – there is no grand set and aside form a handful of props and two stunning backdrops, but the level of detail in Joanna Goodwin’s expert and precise choreography and Jonathan O’Boyle’s consistently creative direction leads to a fully fleshed out production, far grander than what anyone might have expected. You get the sense that a great level of care has been taken from all parties here – from the direction and choreography to Polly Sullivan’s gorgeous costume designs (I appreciated just how much sparkle was on stage) to Jamie Platt’s always fabulous lighting, all elements came together to create what can only be described as magic.



What I always love about these musical theatre concerts is the chance to see shows in bigger venues on a much larger scale. The sense of grandeur on offer at Theatre Royal Drury Lane brought something new to Pippin – something I hadn’t seen before. It amplified the performative side of the story, but also managed to elevate Stephen Schwartz’s gorgeous songs thanks to a stage bursting with the London Musical Theatre Orchestra and a choir. Threatening to crumble under the weight of all that talent, Schwartz’s songs had never sounded better. Bringing every ounce of nuance and depth out of the music and lyrics, the sound was always glorious, expertly led by Chris Ma’s musical direction. These one-off (well, two days) concerts always come with the risk of sound problems but aside from a couple of missed cues very early on, immediately rectified, Adam Fisher’s sound design was crystal clear and flawless throughout.


Where I mentioned the weight of the talent on the stage, that extends to the absolute dream cast that were recruited for this production. Usually, I would look forward to singling out a standout performer among the cast in a review – however, that is proving difficult to do in a production that features, at the very least, six standout performances among its truly incredible and ridiculously talented cast of twelve.



Jac Yarrow stars as the titular Prince himself and his Pippin is something astonishing. From the moment he is plucked from the audience, Yarrow commands the space he’s in, dominating the stage and giving a well-rounded and captivating performance. With beautiful vocals on ‘Extraordinary’ and especially ‘Corner Of The Sky’, he proves what a remarkable young talent he is, eclipsing what was already an impressive performance when he donned Joseph’s technicolor dreamcoat., A particular joy in his performance was in his cocksure attitude and tantrums, resulting in an unexpected highlight of Yarrow pacing the orchestra eyeballing them and trying to pick fights. It was this extra detail that made his performance such a winning one.


Cedric Neal once again proves why he is one of the greatest talents in the West End with a larger-than-life portrayal of King Charlemagne. From the out of this world vocals to the stage presence to the choices in his movement, he delivers another phenomenal performance in the role, making even the briefest of appearances at the start of act two more memorable than you would usually expect, thanks to his expert intuition for the role. Idriss Kargbo is brilliantly hilarious in a small but mighty role as the bratty Lewis, creating laughs even when he has no lines. It is this level of attention to detail and playfulness each cast member brings to the role that made this performance an all time great.



Recently seen as the practically perfect nanny, Zizi Strallen seems determined to shake off the image of Mary Poppins forever in a performance as far from that family-friendly character as you could get. She doesn’t just steal scenes as Fastrada, she takes the whole stage and takes it with her. Somebody in the interval described her performance as “Mary POPPIN” and I think that is the most apt way of describing it. Insane vocals and remarkable movement, Zizi brings theatre, comedy, burlesque and pretty much the kitchen sink in an unforgettable performance .If anything, it proves her versatility and flexibility… in more ways than one.


Having starred in the original West End cast in 1983, living legend Patricia Hodge returns to Pippin to take on the role of Berthe. The result is a performance tinged with more emotion and poignancy than you would have seen in the role before, making ‘No Time At All’ all the more resonant for her own affiliation with the show. Bringing the house down with that number, it was a moment of beauty to watch Hodge blow everybody away, and a masterstroke to have cast her in this production.



She may be absent for the majority of act one but Lucie Jones more than made up for it with an especially comical turn as Catherine. Clearly having a lot of fun in the role, her poise throughout and interactions with Pippin and the Leading Player created a sense of joy that lifted her scenes hugely, and of course her ‘I Guess I’ll Miss The Man’ was every bit the show-stopper you would hope for. Ryan Heenan delighted as Catherine’s son Theo, forming the most emotional double act with a duck you are likely to see in the West End this year.


The performance everybody was talking about, and will continue to talk about until their grand finale in life, is that of Alex Newell. Having won a Tony award for Shucked last year, there was even more excitement about this phenomenal performer appearing in the West End than usual and boy, did they deliver. With an effortless and unrivalled ability to command the stage with the slightest of looks, Newell had the audience in the palm of their hand at every moment. Exceptional timing and a confidence that allowed them to truly embody the character pulling all the strings, they also wowed with a singing voice that seemingly knew no limits, growing bigger and bigger until it reached stratospheric levels. From their opening of ‘Magic To Do’ to every other opportunity the Leading Player got to sing, Newell understood the task and obliterated it in what is surely one of the single greatest performances I have ever seen. While they may only be gracing the West End for a couple of days, they more than left a lasting impression and left me longing they come over here with Shucked.

 


There are some nights in the theatre that will stay with you for as long as you live. Pippin at Theatre Royal Drury Lane is one of them. On top of all of the flawless elements of this production mentioned in this long, rambling review, it was the atmosphere that made it truly special. An enraptured audience longing to witness something special and getting their hopes fulfilled… and then some, led to some of the wildest, longest applauses I have ever witnessed, even derailing the show with a cast member summoned back on to the stage Joining in with 2000 others for a rousing singalong of ‘No Time At All’ brought something extra and quite emotional to an already sensational song.


I have been lucky enough to see some fantastic concerts this year – Pippin was without a doubt the best so far. This is one of those cases where you can tell every person involved is on the same page, with the same vision and determination to pull off something special and memorable, breathing new life into a classic. The result was not only a resounding success but completely extraordinary. While it was billed as a special event to celebrate the 50th anniversary, I would love to see this production of Pippin have a future life somehow – after all, in this magical version, they truly have found their corner of the West End and the sky’s the limit for them.



Pippin played at Theatre Royal Drury Lane on 29th & 30th April. Follow @pippinwestend on socials to keep up to date with future news.


Photos by Pamela Raith Photography

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