Review: “Pippin” is stimulating visual spectacle
Imagine you’re an old Grandma singing a suggestive song intended to rouse the libido in your grandson in front of a packed theater of some 2,800 patrons. Intimidating, no? Now take it another step further by doing the same while dangling head downward from a trapeze several tens of yards above the stage.
I thought the cast of the 2006 Revival of “Company” starring Raul Esparza had the Herculean task of doing it all – singing, acting and playing musical instruments. But the cast of the Broadway touring production of “Pippin,” now playing at Pittsburgh’s Benedum Center through January 25, are asked to do even more – acrobatics on a Cirque du Soleil level.
You’ve probably heard the phrase “It’s a circus out there.” Well, director Diane Paulus decided to make the Big Top the setting for her revival of the original 1972 version that follows the adventures of Pippin, the elder son and heir to the throne of Holy Roman Emperor, Chalemagne.
Just back from his studies in Padua, the young lad is obsessed with the idea of what to do with his life. He wants fulfillment and starts out on a journey to find it. A circus tent is the context of his adventures that touch on many things – a stint in the military, a flirtation with the lascivious life, rebellion that involves not only patricide but also regicide, the life of both an artist and a man of the cloth.
Part fairy tale, part fable, part parable – all set in the context of visual spectacle, the plot line may not hold water as to historical accuracy but the production excels in stimulating the senses. Paulus has the troupe jump through hoops, literally, dangle from trapezes and free fall head-long along poles until they stop abruptly just inches from the floor.
Another thing that enables Pippin to take wing is the score by Stephen Schwartz, who blueprinted the concept of the show years ago while a student at Carnegie-Mellon University, then went on to write the music for “Godspell,” “Wicked” and more. Oh yes, then there’s the choreography rooted in the Bob Fosse’s original but with plenty of new twists by Chet Walker, who took home one of the musical’s four Tony Awards for his terpsichorean creations.
While the plot addresses some somber subjects, book writer, Roger O. Hirson gives us plenty to chuckle about, including the show stopping number by Priscilla Lopez, who does miracles, or is it magic, as Berthe, the Granny intent on rousing the spirits of her downhearted grandson, Pippin.
John Rubinstein throws into the mix a good bit of madcap comedy as the zany emperor with a nasty streak. Ironically, Rubenstein played the title role in the 1972 Broadway debut and, four decades later, is now wearing the crown as the aging monarch of much of 8th century Europe.
Another standout talent with a remarkable singing voice, Sasha Allen plays the Leading Player in the play within a play with a firm grip, dominating her fellow actors like a slightly less acerbic Queen Latifa in the film version of “Chicago.”
In the title role, Sam Lips is a boyish Pippin with a touch of Peter Pan whimsy on a passionate, somewhat naïve, quest for fulfillment, suffering the pratfalls of disappointment, yet reflective and thoughtful on his experiences.
Lips is a handsome and affable prince, true to fairy tale form and sure to awaken the princess in every woman’s heart. He manages to captivate without dominating the production and seems to have gotten the level of balance with the rest of the cast just about right. No alpha male swagger here to ruin the character. That comes in buckets from Pippin’s half-brother, Lewis, played energetically by Callan Bergmann.
Throw in some magic and some special effects to the overall “Pippin” experience, and you end up getting a lot of bang for your entertainment buck.
“Pippin” is at the Benedum Center in Downtown Pittsburgh through January 25. Phone 412-456-6666 or wwwtrustarts.org.
Review by Dave Zuchowski for Pennsylvania Bridges