Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's review of Big River
The current national tour of the musical Pippin, based on the Broadway revival that finished its New York run earlier this year, shows that a new approach to material can infuse a vibrancy and appeal to a show that might otherwise feel like old hat. Adding circus elements to the proceedings, this Pippin has a heightened level of danger which is apt to the material as well as thrilling for the audience. In Cincinnati for a week-long stop, the tour boasts a talented and versatile cast to go along with brilliant design and creative elements.
Pippin is the tale of a prince (Pippin), the eldest son of King Charlemagne. After receiving an elite education, Pippin searches for his purpose in life, and tries to find it in a number of frivolous pursuits, including war, sexual debauchery, drugs, and power. He finally realizes that happiness is found in meaningful relationships, in this case in the form of the widow Catherine and her young son Theo.
The book for Pippin is by Roger O. Hirson and is structured as a play within a play. Hirson has a troupe of performers perform the story of Pippin, led by the crafty Leading Player. This approach provides for an unconventional and surreal tone which is at times somewhat intentionally disturbing and uncomfortable. However, there's also plenty of showbiz glitz, political and social commentary, and moral subtext to intrigue and engage an audience as well.
Despite the challenging plot and storytelling devices, the songs by Schwartz are highly melodic and contain simple, straightforward, and poetic lyrics. Song highlights include the energetic opening production number ("Magic to Do"), a plaintive want song conveying Pippin's desire for personal fulfillment ("Corner of the Sky"), cute charm songs ("No Time at All"), and romantic ballads ("Love Song").
The sure-handed direction for the revival is by Diane Paulus (Hair, Finding Neverland). She carefully balances ever-changing tones of mischief, kookiness, foreboding threats, romance, and despair, and creates visual stage pictures of great elegance. Especially effective is the choice to have the band of performers be circus acrobats. From the Montreal-based Les 7 Doigts de la Main, founded by Gypsy Snider, these artists perform various circus skills including juggling, aerials, tumbling, contortion, and more. The daredevil tricks and skillful moves are used to build tension, enhance the mood, or emphasize the action within the play very effectively. Even the traditional musical theater performers in the cast get to participate in the action, whether it be trapeze or pulling off some large illusions. This infusion of circus skills makes the opening "Magic to Do" number truly apt, and is featured throughout to great effect.
The athletic choreography is by Chet Walker, and includes re-creations of some of Fosse's work, including the fierce "Manson Trio." Ryan Cantwell leads a small yet robust-sounding orchestra.
As Pippin, recent University of Michigan grad Brian Flores is appropriately earnest, eager, and curious, while also conveying the character's conflicted and unsatisfied nature. He sings well and moves with grace and athleticism. As the Leading Player, Gabrielle McClinton displays expert dance skills, sings capably, and provides well-suited sharp and attitude-heavy stage leadership as she stirs the pot of this story. It is a delight to see John Rubinstein, who originated the role of Pippin in 1972 on Broadway, here as King Charles. This Tony Award winner is a commanding presence, and also does well with the silly comedic antics of the role. Priscilla Lopez, another Tony winner, portrays Berthe, Pippin's grandmother. She brings to the role a fun, free-spiritedness mixed with a healthy dose of sass, and gets to wow the crowd with some trapeze work during "No Time At All." As Catherine, Bradley Benjamin is able to be both annoying and tenderly endearing at the same time, as is called for in the role, and sings well. Sabrina Harper dances up a storm as Fastrada, and captures the manipulative manner of the character with a sultry, kewpie-doll demeanor. CCM grad Erik Altemus re-creates the role of Lewis that he performed on Broadway, and supplies the character with a fun, dim-witted vanity. Jake Berman, who shares the role of Theo with Ben Krieger, displays professional skills in the sole child role, and even shows off some circus skills. The entire musical theater and circus ensemble is splendidly talented and their dedication to their craft shines through in the performance.
The beautiful set design by Scott Pask is that of the inside of a large circus tent, yet also suitably conveys the settings of the story thanks to some smaller pieces. The excellent lighting by Kenneth Posner uses bold and bright colors illuminating the circus tent wonderfully, as well as some non-traditional, yet apt, effects for the stark ending of the piece. Dominique Lemieux's well-suited flamboyant costumes embrace both the circus/showbiz and primary story elements, and are beautiful and vibrant.
Pippin is a show that can feel dated in some productions, but the current national tour breathes new life into the piece. With dramatic flair and visuals assisted by stunning circus feats, this well-performed mounting is one that is sure to challenge, amaze, and entertain.
Pippin continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through October 18, 2015. Tickets can be ordered by calling (800) 294-1816. For more information on the tour, please visit www.pippinthemusical.com/tour.php.-- Scott Cain