The 2013, Tony Award-winning revival of Pippin proves an unusual pastiche of medieval history, 1970’s free love nostalgia and, new to the mix, Cirque du Soleil-style theatrics. It is now playing at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles through November 9th as a stop on the revival’s national tour. While the circus acts are undeniably impressive and entertaining, they don’t always fit easily into a narrative about the quest undertaken by Pippin, young and naïve son of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, to find his place in the world (or, more accurately in light of one of the musical’s several popular songs, his “Corner of the Sky”).
Pippin is guided in equal measure by his war-mongering father (John Rubinstein, who played the title role in the original 1972 Broadway production); his beloved trapeze-flying grandmother, Berthe (Tony winner Andrea Martin is reprising the role in LA before Lucie Arnaz takes over for the rest of the tour); and a seductive ringmaster identified only as “Leading Player” and embodied by Sasha Allen, who was a finalist on season four of The Voice and co-starred in the theatre-themed (as well as gay-themed) indie film Camp. Meanwhile, his conniving stepmother Fastrada (played by the sensational Sabrina Harper) strives to get Pippin out of the way so her own son, Lewis (hunky Callan Bergmann) can assume the throne post-Charlemagne. It ultimately falls to simple farmer’s widow Catherine (Kristine Reese, assuming the role played by a pre-stardom Jill Clayburgh in the 1972 Broadway production) and her son to teach Pippin what is most important in life.
In addition to Andrea Martin, who brings the house down and deservedly garners a mid-show standing ovation with her sing-along rendition of “No Time at All,” Matthew James Thomas is recreating his 2013 performance as Pippin in LA. His voice seemed a little shaky at the start of the show on opening night — perhaps due to nerves from performing in front of such A-listers as Steve Martin, Martin Short and Sean Hayes, among others — but he grew more confident as act one continued. The ensemble players were splendid both vocally and physically, with the various demanding circus acts they perform serving as particular tributes to the cast members’ dexterity and strength. I was especially impressed by a number of “how did they do that?” illusions devised by Paul Kieve that are presented during the show.
But it is Stephen Schwartz’s score, written when he was a mere 25-year old and three decades before his more recent success with Wicked, that is truly the star of this show. From the unforgettable opening number, “Magic to Do,” through the aforementioned “Corner of the Sky” and “No Time at All” and on to several other memorable tunes including “Simple Joys,” “Morning Glow” and “Love Song,” they are much more the source of Pippin’s enduring popularity than Roger O. Hirson’s vague, patchy book. Director Diane Paulus’ inspired decision to move the action away from traditional vaudevillian staging to a big top setting, while maintaining the style of original choreographer Bob Fosse, will no doubt ensure this touring production and future incarnations of Pippin a long, renewed life.
Reverend’s Rating: B+
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.