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Pippin
Book by Roger O. Hirson, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Directed by Diane Paulus
Choreography by Chet Walker, in the style of Bob Fosse
Circus Creation by Gypsy Snider
Peabody Opera House
December 10, 2014

Kyle Dean Massey Photo by Joan Marcus Pippin National Tour

Kyle Dean Massey
Photo by Joan Marcus
Pippin National Tour

The current Broadway revival of Pippin is something I’ve wanted to see since I first heard about it. Since trips to New York are few and far between for me, I was thrilled when I found out that the US National Tour, based on the Broadway production, would be coming to St. Louis. The whole concept of turning this show into a circus struck me as ideal for this show, the clips I’ve seen of the Broadway cast have been great, and now the tour has given those of us who were unable to see it in New York the opportunity to see this brilliant new re-imagining of this classic show. The touring production, which opened last night at the Peabody Opera House, definitely does not disappoint. With all the color, style, and spectacle of the circus, as well as an extremely talented cast, this show has “Magic to Do” and it succeeds in casting its spell on the St. Louis audience.

I had seen Pippin before, both live and on video (the 1981 recording with Ben Vereen and William Katt), but this new version is notable in that while it gives the production a total makeover, it seems just as true to the vision of the script as the original staging, albeit with a new ending.  The circus setting, with all its art and artifice, is an ideal backdrop for this story of a young prince (Kyle Dean Massey) on a quest for an extraordinary life.  The Leading Player is played by a woman this time (Lisa Karlin on opening night, covering for principal Sasha Allen), and in fitting with the circus theme, she’s the ringmaster. She introduces and orchestrates the action of the show in an increasingly controlling manner that grows more and more sinister as the show continues.  Pippin’s story takes him on many adventures, and the Leading Player is there to make sure events turn out as she has planned.  It’s actually kind of a play within a play, with the conceit that this is a troupe of traveling performers putting on a show, although it all seems real for Pippin. His adventures involve conflicts with his father Charles, or Charlemagne (John Rubenstein), stepmother Fastrada (Sabrina Harper) and her son, the dim-witted, war-obsessed Lewis (Callan Bergmann).  As Pippin tries everything from war to hedonism, to art to prayer, he eventually ends up finding a degree of happiness in an “ordinary” life on a farm with the widowed Catherine (Kristine Reese) and her son Theo (Zachary Mackiewicz, Lucas Schultz alternating), but is it enough?  What does the Leading Player have to say, and what about the promised Grand Finale that we’ll remember for “the rest of our lives”?  You’ll have to watch to see how that turns out.

The show has been re-imagined, and the circus theme works very well to drive the story and add even more substance to the simple but alternately humorous and poignant story. Performers and trained acrobats perform acts on the flying trapeze, as well as tricks with hula hoops, exercise balls and more. Elements of magic and puppetry are also used. The choreography, by Chet Walker in the style of original 1972 Broadway choreographer Bob Fosse, is dynamic and creative, with elements such as a gender-switched (1 woman, 2 men instead of 1 man, 2 women) version of the famous “Manson Trio” dance break in the middle of the song “Glory” recreated and featuring the Leading Player and backing dancers Matthew DeGuzman and Borris York.  There’s lots of Fosse-style flash blended with the circus elements on songs such as the spectacular opening number “Magic to Do”, and elaborately choreographed production numbers like “Glory”, “Morning Glow”, “Extraordinary” and more. It’s a vibrant show with a dark edge that’s made all the darker by the revamped ending.  It’s full of style, charm, suspense and astounding feats of acrobatics and illusion.  The color scheme is full of vibrant purples, blues and reds, and the circus tent-styled scenery by Scott Pask and the ingenious costumes by Dominique Lemieux establish a consistent and memorable look the the production.

The cast here is extremely impressive. Karlin anchors the production as the stylish, dictatorial and occasionally menacing Leading Player. With her top-notch dance skills, great voice and loads of stage presence, one would never know she’s the understudy if the program didn’t say it.  Massey, who was a wonderful Tony in West Side Story at the Muny in 2013, is full of charm, magnetism and sympathy as Pippin, with a strong, clear voice and an open, youthful countenance. His earnest, plaintive “Corner of the Sky” is a musical highlight of the show. There’s excellent supporting work from Rubenstein (who played Pippin in the original 1972 production) as a particularly vainglorious Charles, as well as Harper in a gleefully vampish performance as Fastrada, Reese as an engaging and slightly goofy Catherine, and Lucie Arnaz in a show-stopping turn as Pippin’s grandmother Berthe, performing “No Time At All” with immense energy and wit.  The ensemble of dancers and circus performers is in excellent form, as well, performing some truly astounding stunts with confidence and apparent ease.  It’s high-quality cast for a top-level touring production.

This tour is so good, it makes up for not being able to see the show on Broadway.  It’s full of charm, humor, drama, and all the things promised in the opening song, with a few twists–some thrilling, some terrifying–along the way. This is Pippin re-invented and re-invigorated, and it’s glorious.  It’s definitely a show not to be missed.

Pippin National Tour Cast Photo by Terry Shapiro

Pippin National Tour Cast
Photo by Terry Shapiro

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