Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

Pippin
National Tour
Review by Nancy Grossman


The Cast
Photo by Joan Marcus
The American Repertory Theater production of Pippin triumphantly brings its circus tent full of actors, singers, dancers, musicians, acrobats and aerialists to the Boston Opera House for a stop on its magical, mesmerizing national tour. Winner of the 2013 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical, the ensemble cast features John Rubinstein (Charles), who originated the title role in 1972, and television star Adrienne Barbeau (Berthe) as Pippin's limber septuagenarian granny. Gabrielle McClinton (Leading Player) is a commanding triple threat who leads Pippin (Brian Flores) and the audience on an electrifying journey in search of the extraordinary life.

It is easy to get caught up in the visual spectacle of Pippin as acrobats perform cartwheels and jump through hoops, aerialists climb poles and dangle from silks, and ridiculously strong men balance upside down on one hand while holding themselves totally erect. Add to that the crisp, angular Bob Fosse-style dance moves choreographed by Chet Walker, the colorful array of Dominique Lemieux's costume designs, and Scott Pask's big top arena with imaginative lighting design by Kenneth Posner, and the book (Roger O. Hirson) and score (Stephen Schwartz) could be forgiven if they were nothing more than pedestrian.

However, as seen through the vision of director Diane Paulus, the simple story of a young man trying to find himself achieves breadth and depth by transforming the conceit from a band of traveling players into a circus troupe. The idea of running off to join the circus for an adventurous life is an age-old fantasy, but here the Leading Player and her cohorts are the embodiment of how enticing that life could be if it is the choice that Pippin makes. Dressed in skin-tight black clothing, McClinton is charismatic as the devilish figure who gives Pippin assurances that he will find a purpose (and a grand finale) if only he follows her lead. As each thing (soldier, lothario, revolutionary leader, king, farmer) he tries brings disappointment, Pippin's search for fulfillment is chronicled in song, with Schwartz's lyrics advancing the story and fleshing out the characters he meets along the way.

Flores is making his professional theater debut and, as a recent college graduate, slips easily into Pippin's skin. The character is an educated, albeit inexperienced, young man who is both cocky and insecure, and Flores captures those qualities. As Pippin gets more experiences under his belt, yet seems no closer to finding the right track, Flores conveys his frustration and the malaise that sets in. When Pippin is faced with some hard choices in the final scenes of the show, Flores handles the rapidly changing emotions of his character convincingly. He also has a fine voice and shares a heartfelt duet with Bradley Benjamin (Catherine).

Benjamin arrives late on the scene as Pippin's love interest, but she makes an impression with her comic timing and vocal belt. Barbeau's voice has a distinctly pleasant quality and she performs the show-stopping number "No Time at All" with brio. She appears to be having a blast and has the audience eating out of her hand. Gleeful would be an apt description of Rubinstein's stage demeanor, and he delivers his asides with the precision of a stand-up comedian and tosses knives with the skill of a midway showman. He has a very strong presence, befitting his role as King, whether singing his patter song about war or steeling himself during a dramatic scene with his homicidal son, yet he is also believable as his wife's sucker. Femme fatale Fastrada (Sabrina Harper) and her strong, but not too bright son Lewis (Skyler Adams) have designs on ruling the kingdom that are spelled out in her amazing dance number ("Spread a Little Sunshine"). Catherine's precocious son Theo is played at alternate performances by Jake Berman (opening night) and Ben Krieger.

Paulus collaborated with Gypsy Snider (Circus Creation) of Les 7 doigts de la main to achieve her vision, and it is carried off by the outstanding ensemble of players (Keven Langlois Boucher, Mathew deGuzman, Aerial Emery, Laura Hall, Nicolas Jelmoni, Anna Kachalova, Alan Kelly, Roman Khayrullin, Nico Maffey, Charlotte O'Sullivan, Anna Schnaitter, Katie Smith, Aléna Watters, Borris York) who all perform a variety of feats on the ground and in the air. Music director Ryan Cantwell (conductor/keyboard) leads an orchestra of eleven musicians and they produce a big sound while not overpowering the singers. Sound design is by Jonathan Deans and Garth Helm.

After its journey from Cambridge to New York and back home, Pippin is still a high-energy spectacle. It is definitely not road weary; rather it has matured into a well-oiled musical theater piece masquerading as a three-ring circus. Stunts are performed with precision, illusions elicit gasps of wonder, and incredible music and lyrics drive home the emotional power of the story.

Pippin is an Everyman whose journey resonates with us all. Timeless and true, all of us are faced with choices as we search for meaning in our own lives. Choose something extraordinary. Choose Pippin.

Pippin, Broadway In Boston, performances through February 14 at the Boston Opera House, 539 Washington Street, Boston, MA; Ticketmaster 800-982-2787 or www.BroadwayInBoston.com. For more information on the tour, visit www.pippinthemusical.com/tour.php.

The American Repertory Theatre production of Pippin, Book by Roger O. Hirson, Music & Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, Directed by Diane Paulus, Choreography by Chet Walker (in the style of Bob Fosse), Circus Creation by Gypsy Snider (of Les 7 doigts de la main), Orchestrations by Larry Hochman, Music Supervision & Arrangements by Nadia DiGiallonardo; Music Director, Ryan Cantwell; Scenic Design, Scott Pask; Lighting Design, Kenneth Posner; Costume Design, Dominique Lemieux; Sound Design, Jonathan Deans & Garth Helm; Illusions, Paul Kieve; Production Stage Manager, Marian DeWitt

Cast: Gabrielle McClinton, Brian Flores, John Rubinstein, Sabrina Harper, Bradley Benjamin, and Adrienne Barbeau; Skyler Adams, Jake Berman, Keven Langlois Boucher, Stephen Brower, Mark Burrell, Mathew deGuzman, Aerial Emery, Laura Hall, Nicolas Jelmoni, Anna Kachalova, Alan Kelly, Roman Khayrullin, Ben Krieger, Nico Maffey, Charlotte O'Sullivan, Anna Schnaitter, Katie Smith, Aléna Watters, Kate Wesler, Borris York


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