Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
In 1974, Pippin was an apt manifestation of the times. Pippin is son of the emperor Charlemagne, or Charles the Great. In spite of being born into the seat of greatest power, Pippin yearns to find his own meaning in life. He seeks fulfillment through military exploits, the pursuit of sensual pleasure, revolutionary politics and religion, but finds only frustration and emptiness. In a very simplified way, this is the story of many of Pippin's 1970s peers. These were sons and daughters of post-war America, the greatest power on Earth, who rejected that inheritanceits war in Vietnam, sexual repression, male chauvinism, and unquestioning faith in progress at the expense of environment. The mantra, "turn on, tune in, and drop out" was a call to search for alternative fulfillment, just as Pippin does. And like Pippin, many of that generation passed through various waves of experience only to find that fulfillment may be much simpler than we had envisioned it to be.
The other major character in Pippin is the Leading Player. This person (a part originated by Ben Vereen, recast as a woman in this revival) propels Pippin's attempts into a larger context, calling on the band of Players to transform every step Pippin takes into a major production, garish and sensuous, riddled with irony, blazingly entertaining but devoid of the very meaning Pippin hoped to find. Opening the show with "Magic To Do," we are given an overview of the stages in the journey Pippin is about to take, assured that each will turn into a spectacle, complex and gritty productions that will greatly entertain, but in the end, obscure those stages of any inner meaning or lasting value. It all becomes just a show. A spectacular show, to be sure, but at the end of the day, it's all show biz.
So we have a dualitythe purity of Pippin's personal search buried in the spectacle of the madding crowd. The revival production emphasizes the duality even more than Fosse's original staging, by layering, on top of stellar production numbers bejeweled with classic vaudeville turns and peppered with sensuality, actual circus acts, so thrilling that we quite forget the earnest hopes with which Pippin entered the arena of war ... or passion ... or politics.
But for all that, who could resist the splendid dance numberschoreographer Chet Walker, a Player in the original production of Pippin, has drawn upon Bob Fosse's legendary style with great success. Watching Pippin reminded me of the glories of real Broadway dancing. There really is no substitute.
Several characters propel the story through their own specialty numbers: Charlemagne launches "War Is a Science"; Pippin's conniving stepmother Fastrada tries to mask her treachery as good works in "Spread a Little Sunshine"; and, most impressively, Pippin's grandmother Berthe proffers her philosophy of living life to the limits while hanging from a trapeze in "No Time at All," complete with audience sing-along, lyrics projected along with an old-time bouncing ball. The woman who finally opens Pippin's eyes to the virtues of a simple life, Catherine, has two songsfirst, "Ordinary Woman," which she sings with brio, marketing herself as a good catch for Pippin, and later "I Guess I'll Miss the Man," which reveals that Catherine has changed and now has the pain of real, rather than manufactured feelings. Pippin presents his own case in "Corner of the Sky" and "Extraordinary" and, with the Players bolstering his prompts, the yearning "With You" and inspiring "Morning Glow." Finally, the love song titled simply "Love Song" reveals Pippin and Catherine discovering that the simplicity of a loving home might be what Pippin has been seeking all along.
Every member of the cast in this production excels, starting with the amazingly limber and endlessly watchable Sasha Allen as the Leading Player. She moves with sultry style and grace without breaking a sweat, sings gloriously, and shifts from charming mistress of ceremonies to belligerent director in a heartbeat. We are never sure if she is up to good or not so good, but we are always spellbound in her presence. Sam Lips is a winning Pippin, boyishly sincere and good-looking, with a pleasing voice, and able to keep up with the demanding choreography. Where Pippin could come across as a cartoon or worse, a cipher, Lips makes us care about the outcome of this earnest young man.
Priscilla Lopez in the role of Pippin's grandmother Berthe is a wonderful treat. A Tony Award winner, and an original star of A Chorus Line, Lopez has only one scene, but she imbeds it with salty humor, moves better than most people half her ageincluding that stint on a trapezeand sings with a genuine Broadway belt. Adding to the spirit of celebration, John Rubinstein, who created the role of Pippin on Broadway those many years ago, has come full circle and is extremely funny in the role of Charlemagne.
Kristine Reese as Catherine has the quality of Julia Louis-Dreyfusa pushy insistence cloaked in self-deprecationearly on, softening as her relationship with Pippin deepens. Sabrina Harper as Fastrada, Callan Bergmann as Pippin's step-brother Lewis, and Lucas Schultz (in the performance I saw) as Catherine's young son Theo are all in perfect tune with their characters.
Every corner of the set, designed to resemble the interior of a vast circus tent, is used to show off the action, the dancing, the marvelous circus feats on ropes, with hoops, trapezes, and more. Smaller set pieces glide in and out seamlessly to create a stained glass windowed chapel, Charlemagne's throne room, and Catherine's farm. The costumes are variations on the garb one would imagine being worn deep in the Middle Ages as diffused through the eye of a cartoonist, with the exception of the Leading Player, a vaudevillian in tights and vest.
Pippin's book by Roger O. Hirson has often been criticized as being facile, but it gets the story told, and moreover, is a frame on which to place the amazing song and dance numbers imagined by Bob Fosse and recast with great love by director Diane Paulus and Chet Walker. Stephen Schwartz's score is tuneful, if not sophisticated. It could be easy to find fault with some of Pippin's parts, but the great news is that the parts combine to make a fabulous whole: unbeatable entertainment that never flags, glorious designs to dazzle the eye, and a story that can touch your heart a bit if you let it. Seeing that inner heart can be a challenge, but after all, that is the same challenge our hero, young Pippin, had to contend with so long ago.
Pippin continues through February 22, 2015, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $29.00 - $134.00. For tickets call 612-859-SHOW (7469) or go to www.hennepintheatretrust.org/events. For more information on the tour, visit www.pippinthemusical.com/tour.php.
Book by Roger O. Hirson; Music & Lyrics: Stephen Schwartz; Director: Diane Paulus; Choreography: Chet Walker, in the style of Bob Fosse; Circus Creations: Gypsy Snider; Set Designer: Scott Pask; Costume Designer: Dominique Lemieux; Lighting Designer: Kenneth Posner; Sound Designers: Jonathan Deans and Garth Helm; Illusions: Paul Kieve; Casting: Telsey + Company, Duncan Stewart/Benton Whitley; Orchestrations: Larry Hochman; Music Supervision and Arrangements: Nadia DiGiallonardo; Music Director: Ryan Cantwell; Music Coordinator: John Miller; Production Manager: Dylan Wright; Associate Director: Nancy Harrington; Assistant Director: Mia Walker; Technical Supervisor: Jake Bell; Assistant Choreographers: Mark Burrell and Brad Musgrove; General Manager: BJ Holt; Production Stage Manager: Marian DeWitt; Production Supervisor: Mahlon Kruse; Executive Producer: Alecia Parker
Cast: Sasha Allen (Leading Player), Callan Bergmann (Lewis), Sabrina Harper (Fastrada), Sam Lips (Pippin), Priscilla Lopez (Berthe), Kristine Reese (Catherine), John Rubinstein (Charles), Stephen Sayegh (Theo Wed, Fri., Sat. mat., Sun eve.), Lucas Schultz (Theo Tues., Thurs, Sat. eve, Sun. mat).
The Players: Sascha Bachmann, Bradley Benjamin, Mark Burrell, Mathew deGuzman, Sammy Dinneen, Aerial Emery, , Henry Gottfried, Nicolas Jelmoni, Kelsey Jamieson, Kai Johnson-Peady, Lisa Karlin, Alan Kelly, Charlotte O'Sullivan, Mirela Golinska Roche, Tory Trowbridge, Kate Wesler, Borris York.