Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Pippin
National Tour

Also see John's reviews of An Iliad and A Streetcar Named Desire


Adrienne Barbeau
This musical was, by standards of its day (the mid 1970s), a monstrous hit. Given that success, it seems to have had less of an afterlife than one would have expected, until this high concept revival stormed onto Broadway in 2013. Were directors afraid of comparisons to Bob Fosse's original staging, was its parable of youth rebelling against war and classism now too dated, or is it just a little sweet for these jaded times? When director Diane Paulus came up with this conceptual production, changing the travelling players from something vague into circus performers, fears of references to Fosse were thrown out the window. In doing something completely different from Fosse, yet still highly visual, Paulus gave us a whole new spectacle—melding acrobatics, aerial silk acts, magic and fire in with Fosse-esque choreography to give us a feast of entertainment.

The concept makes sense. When we think of travelling performers, nothing comes to mind faster than circus performers. And with this allegorical story of Pippin, a young prince of medieval France who is seeking an "extraordinary" life, who could be better role models than circus players—athletes who perform acts that are the model of Exceptionalism, feats beyond the capabilities of mere mortals. The circus acts in Paulus's staging are generally well integrated into the story—why wouldn't Pippin's grandmother do acrobatic stunts on a high-flying trapeze in between verses of "No Time At All"?—though they detract from the story at points. It's all fun, but I couldn't help finding Paulus's tone just a little, well, mean at times. Sure, the book by Roger O. Hirson is satiric, but the comments of the Leading Player toward Pippin and his eventual lover Catherine seem to get harsh. Pippin is a symbol of youthful innocence, after all, and we have to have some empathy for the kid. Stephen Schwartz's sweet songs provide that empathy, but the score is performed here mostly louder and faster than we might remember from the original cast album. That's not a problem for the comedy numbers, but it gets in the way of "With You" (a sentimental love song accompanied here by some very bawdy choreography) and the charming "Kind of Woman."

Even if this is not everyone's favorite interpretation of Pippin, there's no denying it's a fun and eye-popping one, surprising us with its visual invention as it goes on. I'd have to bet this touring company is as good as the Broadway original—an ensemble of singers, dancers, and acrobatics who consistently amaze, plus the added delights of John Rubinstein and Adrienne Barbeau in key roles. Rubinstein, as you probably know, was the original Pippin some 43 years ago, and he's now aged into the role of Pippin's father King Charlemagne. He's a fine comic actor, and brings a juicy irony to Hirson's character—a charming, half-dotty old coot who misses (or maybe just accepts) the inherent contradictions in slaughtering opposing armies in the name of Christianity. And it's a treat to see Adrienne Barbeau as Charlemagne's mother Berthe. She has just one song, but what a great one, as she enchants the audience while cavorting through "No Time at All." The initial reaction to her is that she must be too young to play the 70-year-old Berthe, but then you remember that her run in TV's "Maude" was over 40 years ago and in fact Ms. Barbeau turned 70 just this past June. You wouldn't know it from looking at the trim and still-sexy actress, but I guess that's the point her character is making. (There's no way she could be Rubinstein's mother, though).

Sasha Allen, a top contender on TV's "The Voice," is a quite satisfying Leading Player. Appropriately enough, given this production's approach to the score, she belts out her numbers in a pop/rock fashion and serves as a charismatic ringmistress. The title role is played by Sam Lips, an understudy in the role on Broadway. He's a handsome guy with a sweetly youthful look about him, and has great skill in the comic demands of the character, as do Erik Altemus (repeating his Broadway role of Lewis), Sabrina Harper as Fastrada, and Kristine Reese as the widow Catherine.

Some purists and Schwartz's most die-hard fans may object, but this is one of those Broadway shows that delivers the entertainment one expects for a ticket priced in the $100 range.

Pippin will play the Cadillac Palace Theatre at 151 W. Randolph, Chicago, through August 9, 2015. For tickets and further information, visit www.broadwayinchicago.com or call 800-775-2000. For more information on the tour, visit www.pippinthemusical.com.


Photo: Sara Hanna

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-- John Olson


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