'Pippin': Theater Review

Terry Shapiro
Diane Paulus' outstanding revival arguably improves on the original

The national tour touches down in Los Angeles with Broadway company members Matthew James Thomas in the title role and Andrea Martin as his age-defying grandmother

The story of a real-life renegade prince who learns existential lessons while singing insipid songs of the seventies — that’s what Pippin was before Bob Fosse got his hands on it in 1972, turning it into a hit that ran five years and won five Tonys. With a simple story set against a commedia dell'arte backdrop, composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz, who was coming off the success of Godspell, delivers lethargic ballads intercut with showstoppers in the Up With People vein. As lame as that sounds, it doesn’t matter because Fosse saw something in the archetypal Pippin, a boy on his path to maturity. He brought in a slinky, sexy undercurrent that counterbalanced Schwartz’s saccharine melodies to give the show a whole new dimension.

For her 2013 production, director Diane Paulus — the reigning queen of revivals with Hair and The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess among her most recent — did what Fosse did. She injected the material with something new, in this case upgrading the tired commedia backdrop to a full-blown circus with acrobats and trapeze artists. It’s a healthy dose of chaos that broadens the tone and the comedy while desaturating the sanctimony. It’s not enough to fully redeem Roger O. Hirson’s dreary book but it’s a hell of an improvement and it won the production four Tonys, including best revival and direction of a musical.

The touring company currently at Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre through Nov. 9 stars several members of the Broadway cast including Matthew James Thomas as Pippin, the eldest son of Charles, or Charlemagne who, in the name of Jesus, wrought bloody havoc throughout Europe in the 8th Century. A typically restless youth, Pippin is preoccupied with doing something significant and finding greater meaning in life. He tries war, sex and even patricide, but none of it sticks until he settles down in the end as a humble family man.

Read more 'Pippin': Theater Review 2013

Coming off Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, Thomas calls upon his Spidey powers for a bit of pole-climbing and further acrobatics, though he stumbled badly in his first number, “Corner of the Sky,” sounding hoarse and occasionally off-key at last Sunday’s matinee. But by the time he got to the Act I finale, “Morning Glow,” he had improved. The vocal hiccups didn’t affect his acting and Thomas delivers with an amiability that duly saves Pippin from the precipice of unsympathetic self-obsession.

John Rubinstein played a hippie Pippin in Fosse's original production at a time when his call to revolution might have struck a different chord with audiences. His return to the show as Pippin’s father, Charles, the charmingly goofy though murderous ruler of the world, has its own irony. Rubinstein seems so delighted to be returning to the play that started his career at the tender age of 26 that he injects Charles with an infectious giddiness that seems only partially acted. He is coupled with Sabrina Harper, who brings a spiky sexiness to the role of Fastrada, Charles' double-dealing trophy wife.

After making her Broadway debut as Dionne in Paulus’ revival of Hair, Sasha Allen takes over the Mephistophelean role of Leading Player, the narrator who tempts Pippin through a series of transgressions. A career-making role for Ben Vereen in the original production, it garnered a Tony for Patina Miller in the revival, which flips the gender of this key character. Allen delivers with rousing vocals in the opening number, “Magic to Do” and later in “On the Right Track." But when it comes to executing Fosse’s dynamic steps (reinterpreted by choreographer Chet Walker), she rises to the level of adequate in numbers like the toe-tapping dance hall throwback "The Manson Trio."

Read more 'Pippin' Sees Profit on Broadway

Thank heavens Andrea Martin has joined the tour for its LA stop, reprising her Tony-winning role as Pippin's exiled grandmother, Berthe. Her show-stopping number, “No Time at All,” is worth the price of admission alone. But what makes this revival worthy of its accolades is the new context created by the big-top acrobatic show that surrounds Pippin, courtesy of Gypsy Snider from the Montreal circus troupe, Les 7 Doigts de la Main. If you’ve never heard of Fosse and you don’t care for musicals, the death-defying stunts and derring-do are sure to get your heart thumping. And if they don’t, then you’d better check your pulse. 

Cast: Sasha Allen, Sabrina Harper, Andrea Martin, Callan Bergmann, John Rubinstein, Matthew James Thomas, Kristine Reese, Lucas Schultz, Zachary Mackiewicz, Skyler Adams, Sascha Bachmann, Bradley Benjamin, Dmitrious Bistrevsky, Mark Burrell, Matthew deGuzman, Fernando Dudka, Mirela Golinska Roche, Kelsey Jamieson, Preston Jamieson, Lisa Karlin, Alan Kelly, Melodie Lamoureux, Tory Trowbridge, Mackenzie Warren, Borris York

Director: Diane Paulus

Book and lyrics: Roger O. Hirson

Music and lyrics: Stephen Schwartz

Set designer: Scott Pask

Costume designer: Dominique Lemieux

Lighting designer: Kenneth Posner

Sound designer: Jonathan Deans, Garth Helm

Illusion: Paul Kieve

Choreographer: Chet Walker (in the style of Bob Fosse)

Circus creations: Gypsy Snider

Music director: Charlie Alterman

Orchestrations: Larry Hochman

Music supervision and arrangements: Nadia DiGiallonardo

Presented by Barry and Fran Weissler, Howard and Janet Kagan, Lisa Martin, Kyodo Tokyo, Stephen E. McManus, A&A Gordon, Tom Smedes/Peter Stern, Broadway Across America, Independent Presenters Network, Norton Herrick, Allen Spivak, Rebecca Gold, David Robbins/Bryan S. Weingarten, Philip Hagemann/Murray Rosenthal, Hugh Hayes/Jonathan Reinis/Jamie Cesa, Kim Kierstead/Carlos Arana/Myla Lerner, Ben Feldman, Just For Laughs Theatricals, Square|Theatrics, Sharon A. Carr/Patricia R. Klausner, Wendy Federman/Carl Muellenberg/Infinity Theatre Company/Michael Rubenstein, Michael A. Aldon/Dale Badway/Ken Mahoney

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