Musical Theatre PIPPIN National Youth Theatre

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The Independent Culture
Stephen Schwartz's first hit was based on the gospel according to Matthew, hardly the ideal vehicle for a successful musical. Wrong. The show was Godspell. The British production starred David Essex and the young Julie Covington, Marti Webb and Jeremy Irons - scarcely household names back then. This, the first London revival of Schwartz's next smash, Pippin, has a cast of complete unknowns. In the future, people may well say: "I saw them when they were in the National Youth Theatre." Fans of musical theatre should see it, for notwithstanding a number of good songs, this revival suggests there is unlikely to be another.

Compared to Godspell, the setting is positively modern. Roger O Hirson's slangy book tells the eponymous story of the son of Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne in "780 AD or thereabouts". In true Seventies style, our hero sets about finding "something completely fulfilling", or as Schwartz puts it in Pippin's first song, "got to find my corner of the sky". Belittled by his overambitious stepmother (an accomplished Jayne Nesbitt) and body- built stepbrother, Pippin goes to war to impress his father, only to end up killing him for his tyrannical use of power. Realising that he is falling into the same traps, he runs away to continue his journey of discovery. He finds and discards love and domesticity and even gets to play a scene with a dead duck. You have to hand it to Schwartz - anyone who can tempt fate and risk a dead duck headline has some nerve.

In many ways, Pippin is like Bernstein's Candide re-scored for a rock band (with some fabulously dated Seventies arrangements). In both shows, you simply don't care enough about the naive leading character. Pippin's saving grace and biggest liability is the circus-like frame introduced by original director/choreographer Bob Fosse, who was widely regarded as pivotal to the show's success. Characters comment on the action and shape the storytelling into a revue-like format. The result is something all too knowing, with characters addressing the audience and undercutting the sentiment of the sometimes powerful music.

Edward Wilson's production has more energy than it knows what to do with. Reprising Fosse's trademark hatwork, bump-'n'-grind hips and outstretched palms is not the same as creating real choreographic shape and dynamism. Despite impressive work, the huge, drably costumed chorus looks like a cross between a Fellini film and a Madonna video. It's as if everyone is afraid that if they stop being busy for a second, everything will come crashing down about their ears. As ever, simplicity works best. "On the Right Track" is just that - a fun, neat duet for the nimble, thoroughly engaging Timothy Baker as Pippin and the Mephistophelian Leading Character (a slick, energetic Chris Jarman) which showcases the performers' genuine potential.

The moral of the story is that happiness is in your own backyard. By the curtain call, the cast look pretty happy. And why not.

n To 2 Sept. The Bloomsbury Theatre (0171-388 8822)