Younger audiences approaching Pippin for the first time might not entirely care about Martin and Rubinstein, and this revival has something for them, too. Diane Paulus's circus staging keep the energy from flagging. I was reminded of when I saw Barnum at the Pantages back in the early '80smy 13-year-old self had been enraptured by the use of circus acts in storytelling, and I imagine young theatregoers today might respond to Pippin similarly. To be sure, I had initially been a bit skeptical about a circus-style Pippin, thinking the musical was strong enough to stand on its own without this sort of visual distraction. As it turns out, though, the circus overlay is probably what has made this revival so successful. Sasha Allen plays the Leading Playerthe iconic role that won Ben Vereen a Tonyand Allen is a singer, not a dancer. She makes a valiant effort with Chet Walker's Bob Fosse-inspired choreography, but her physical presence simply cannot command the stage. But in this production, she doesn't have to hold attention alone; every Leading Player song is backed with eye-catching circus skills from the rest of the players.
Taken together, the first act is just all kinds of fun. As we follow the journey of Pippin (Matthew James Thomas, in full-on teenager mode, alternatingly overenthusiastic and petulant) as he tries to find his place in the world. There are occasional moments of darkness, but it is mostly a diverting romp through Pippin's experiments with different approaches to adulthood.
And then there's the second act. I will be completely honest here: I've never liked the second act of Pippin, and I'm coming to think I just never will. The pace wanes; the songs aren't as strong; and I just don't like the way the ending goes down. When it's well doneas it is hereit is undeniably moving, but it just doesn't work for me. Pippin is presented with a false dichotomy; the choice he makes is the obvious one, given the alternative. But there truly are other options, and if Pippin is only making his decision because it beats the only other (apparent) alternative, it isn't a real decision at all (and won't be lasting).
Even with my disappointment in the second act, I still have to recommend this Pippin, for the first act in general and Andrea Martin's "No Time at All" in particular. It is rare that I get so effusive over a single song that I'm willing to overlook my substantial issues with the remainder of a musical. But this is one of those rare moments of theatrical magic in which performer, role, and staging come together to create something genuinely special.
Pippin runs at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood through November 9, 2014. For tickets and information, see www.HollywoodPantages.com. For more information on the tour, visit /www.pippinthemusical.com/tour.php.
Pantages Theatre, Barry and Fran Weissler, Howard and Janet Kagan, Lisa Matlin, 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, Jim Kierstead/Carlos Arana/Myla Lerner, Ben Feldman, Just For Laughs Theatricals, Square 1 Theatrics, Sharon A. Carr/Patricia R. Klausner, Wendy Federman/Carl Muellenberg, Infinity Theatre Company/Michael Rubenstein, Michael A. Alden/Dale Badway/Ken Mahoney present The American Repertory Theater production of Pippin. Book by Roger O. Hirson; Music & Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Scenic Design by Scott Pask; Lighting Design by Kenneth Posner; Costume Design by Dominique Lemieux; Sound Design by Jonathan Deans & Garth Helm; Illusions by Paul Kieve; Casting Telsey + Company; Original Casting Duncan Stewart/Benton Whitley; Tour Booking Agency The Booking Group/Meredith Blair; Company Manager Bill Schaeffer; Tour Marketing and Press Anita Dloniak & Associates, Inc.; Advertising SpotCo; Music Coordinator John Miller; Music Director Ryan Cantwell; Associate Director Fred Hanson; Technical Supervisor Jake Bell; Associate Choreographers Mark Burrell & Brad Musgrove; Production Supervisor Mahlon Kruse; Creative Producer Alecia Parker; General Manager B.J. Holt; Orchestrations by Larry Hochman; Music Supervision and Arrangements by Nadia DiGiallonardo; Circus Creation by Gypsy Snider of Les 7 doigts de la main; Choreography by Chet Walker in the style of Bob Fosse; Directed by Diane Paulus.