Theatre Review: ‘Pippin’ at The Fox

Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 3.42.21 PMBy Manning Harris
fmanningh@gmail.com

The Broadway in Atlanta series is presenting “Pippin,” director Diane Paulus’ 2013 Tony-winning revival/reimagining of the original 1972 Broadway musical, which was directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse. Chet Walker choreographs here. It will play at the Fox Theatre through May 10.

With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (“Godspell,” “Wicked”), “Pippin” uses the premise of a mysterious performance troupe to tell the story of Prince Pippin, a young man on an existential quest to find true meaning and significance in his life—with a little fun along the way.

The story is based very loosely on Pippin and his father Charlemagne from the early Middle Ages. But actor John Rubinstein (the original Pippin and in the current version his father Charles) says the show is not really about Pippin and Charlemagne: “It’s about all of us and our search for fulfillment and our desire to accomplish something while we’re here.”

The show was always intensely theatrical; but director Paulus has brilliantly jazzed it up by using a circus troupe motif, and there is a distinct Cirque du Soleil flavor to the piece, with gymnastics, acrobatics, and trapezes. It is quite spectacular (scenic design by Scott Pask).

The theatrical “fourth wall” is broken almost immediately by the Leading Player (Lisa Karlin), who narrates and reminds us all that there is “Magic to Do” in the opening number; she is certainly using the theatre’s “ritual power to call forth the spirits,” as playwright Pearl Cleage would say.

In fact, “Magic to Do” is so dazzling and dynamically sung by Ms. Karlin and the company, that in lesser shows you’d have nowhere to go but down.

Happily, that is not the case here. Pippin (beautifully played by Kyle Dean Massey) tells us that he must search for his “Corner in the Sky.” This number starts softly, then builds and soars. Only one small “encouragement” here: Mr. Massey, although miked, must project in the soft notes; he’s not used to playing in a vast venue like the Fox. Very few are. Sound designers: please take note.

He seeks advice from his father Charles (the aforementioned Mr. Rubinstein) but doesn’t get anything very useful. So Pippin thinks he’ll aim for the “Glory” of war, which he quickly learns is both a myth and a lie.

His grandmother Berthe (the wonderful Adrienne Barbeau, from TV’s “Maude”) tells him to seize the day (“No Time at All”) and in a truly delightful number reminds him that he can only live in the present moment. She shows him what she means by proceeding to fly on the trapeze. The audience goes bananas (Ms. Barbeau is now 69).

So after sampling some joys of the flesh, which Pippin finds highly “interesting” but ultimately unfulfilling, he meets a young widow named Catherine (Kristine Reese) and her small son Theo (Lucas Schultz/Stephen Sayegh). Could they be the key to his elusive fulfillment, prosaic as their lives seem? You’ll have to see the show. Ms. Reese and Mr. Schultz (whom I saw) are both excellent.

Sabrina Harper and Callan Bergmann add much to the cast. In fact, I’ve been cleared by a good pal to tell you that there are “no weak links” here. My theatregoing friend had for a time forbidden this phrase, declaring I had overused it.

Another note: Sasha Allen is the listed player for the Leading Player; she’s been temporarily sidelined by a wrist injury. But I assure you that Lisa Karlin, her replacement, is a very large talent. She could easily play Elphaba in any “Wicked” company.

“Pippin” has magic, charm, and a tender wistfulness. It has the “still, sad music of humanity,” as Wordsworth said, yet it remains defiantly upbeat. A warning—the show is close to selling out.

For tickets and information, visit foxtheatre.org.                              

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