Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Pippin National Tour
Originally conceived by composer Schwartz as a college musical, this is the first Broadway revival the show has had since the long running original production closed in June of 1977 after running for over four and a half years. The plot focuses on a group of performers, overseen by master of ceremonies Leading Player, who tell the tale of naive young prince Pippin, who has returned home after getting his education. His father, King Charlemagne, has married a much younger woman, Fastrada, and Lewis her son has already taken his place in Charlemagne's army. Pippin, not sure how he can prove himself, believes that going to battle will do just that, and so begins the first of many quests for Pippin to find his way in life. Along his journey he finds art, religion, has lots of mindless sex that leaves him empty and unfulfilled, meets up with his grandmother who gives him some wise advice, and encounters a young widow and her son. But, even with all of these experiences, he still continues his search for something "extraordinary."
It is an interesting story about a young man on a search for his purpose in life, a life where living in a castle and being wealthy may not be what is best, yet living a life of modesty and simple joys might not either. It is a simple and often told tale but director Paulus has enveloped it within a circus tent that explodes with acrobats, tumblers, trapeze artists, dancers, and other magical moments that elevate this simple tale into one of mystery, suspense, and pure enjoyment.
At the center of the show is Sasha Allen as the Leading Player, a role played in previous productions by a man and originated by Ben Vereen in the 1972 Broadway production. At first glance, it might seem that Allen was simply cast in the part due to her being one of the top five finalists in the TV show "The Voice" during its fourth season, but she turns out to be quite good in the part. While she isn't quite as stellar as Tony winner Patina Miller was on Broadway, and her dance moves might not be quite as sleek as some of the other performers on stage, she manages to create quite an impression. Allen wails on her songs, dances up a storm, and adds nice comical and serious moments to her character. She is both sensual and sweet, yet intimidating and disturbing, too. Kyle Dean Massey is Pippin. Massey, who just played the role on Broadway this year, is handsome yet instills the role with a somewhat nerdy, awkward nature which works well. He has a lovely, rich singing voice, throws himself into the physical requirements of the part and does an excellent job of taking us along on Pippin's journey of self-discovery.
John Rubinstein is now playing Pippin's father, King Charlemagne, and Sabrina Harper is Charlemagne's much younger wife Fastrada. Both are excellent in their supporting roles, with Rubinstein a forceful but fun King and Harper perfect as the conniving second wife who dances up a storm. As Berthe, Pippin's grandmother, Lucie Arnaz stops the show with her first act solo "No Time at All" that includes a nice amount of trapeze work which she pulls off elegantly with the assistance of Dmitrious Bistrevsky. It's a performance you'll remember long after the curtain comes down. Kristine Reese is Catherine, the young widow Pippin meets who makes him realize the possibilities of a simple life. She has a powerful voice, is earthy and charming, but also very funny and touching. Most of the ensemble have experience with various circus troupes, including the Montreal-based Les 7 Doigts de la Main, and each one is extremely skilled with their acrobatic prowess, given a moment or two to shine, and are incorporated effectively and seamlessly into the story. In the small part of Catherine's son Theo, Lucas Schultz is a charmer with an exceptional voice.
Paulus moves the show along at a quick clip but also allows the right amount of time for the circus choreography and acrobatics by Chet Walker and Gypsy Snider (co-founder of Les 7 Doigts de la Main) to perfectly interweave with the score and book by Roger O. Hirson. The way the main cast is included in some of the circus acts is extremely dazzling and extra special, as even the non-circus performers rise to almost the same level as the circus trained members of the cast. The original Broadway production was directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse and a few of Fosse's signature dances from that production are incorporated as well. Scenic design by Scott Pask combines vibrant colors all set under a big top tent that becomes even more magical at the very end of the show when it transforms into something else entirely. Dominique Lemieux's costume design perfectly combines the colorful circus theme with the required sensual and serious elements of the plot. The extremely quick costume changes for Fastrada during her solo "Spread a Little Sunshine" are a testament to Lemieux and Paulus' skills.
Is Pippin a perfect show? No, but it is one with many magical and memorable moments and when combined with Paulus' re-energizing of the material with her circus theme it elevates it into a joyful and dazzling experience of a story of self-discovery.
Pippin runs through December 7th, 2014, at ASU Gammage located at 1200 S. Forest Avenue in Tempe. Tickets can be purchased at www.asugammage.com or by calling 480 965-3434. For more information on the tour, visit www.pippinthemusical.com/tour.php.
Director: Diane Paulus