Resolution to self: At no point, under any circumstances, within this review/evaluation/examination/whatever, will I use the phrase “magic to do” to evaluate the astonishing production of “Pippin” currently running at the Pantages Theatre.
This is all Diane Paulus’s fault. The quite visionary Artistic Director of American Repertory Theatre – who has shepherded the first Broadway revival of the 1972 Stephen Schwartz-Roger O. Hirson musical – just had to set the damn thing in a circus. In a circus where feats of prestidigitation are par for the big top-y course, no less.
What a circus it is! Under the guidance of director Paulus, choreographer Chet Walker (in the style of Bob Fosse) and especially 7 doits de la main’s Gypsy Snider, we are in an arena of wonders where positively everyone gets in on the act. Contortionists, aerialists, strong men, balancers and jugglers are all guiding poor confused Pippin on his way through life. Yes, everyone. Even some folks who you most certainly don’t expect to circus-ize are climbing, balancing or throwing knives. At the Pantages you may witness about as showy a “Pippin” as the play allows.
The circus overlay, while it seems so obvious, really is a bit of genius vision on Paulus’s part. Whether you’re living in L.A. 2014 or in a version of 13th century France that looks suspiciously like the present, things get a little zany sometimes. A troop of players with a forceful ringleader can help, but only so much. Life is a circus, both for those high and low-born. Under the big top, where everything is boom!, flash!, kapow! , one is clearly expected to be as extraordinary as those folks who are doing wonders around you. Pippin eventually figures this out…and then he decides out that he needs a different course. Think it’s hard to run away and join the circus? Try escaping it.
Pippin, son of Charlemagne, is pretty damned high born, and he is destined to do amazing things. A certain greatness is also expected of Pippin’s doltish half-brother Lewis, of his father, Charles and even of his stepmother, Fastrada. Catherine, the comparatively not-so-great widow with whom our hero hooks up during the Ordinary Life segment, is the one character of whom nothing wonderful is expected. Which makes it a real treat when her portrayer, Kristine Reese, stumbles onstage, and knocks the I-am-ordinary number “Kind of Woman” out of the ballpark.
Paulus’s players on the L.A. leg of the tour include two performers who originated their roles in the Broadway company, including Matthew James Thomas in the title role and Andrea Martin who won a Tony Award for her one-shot scene as Pippin’s grandmother, Berthe. Sasha Allen, taking on the coveted Leading Player role, more than has the chops to ringmaster the affair and John Rubinstein (who was Broadway’s original Pippin back in 1972) is having the time of his life playing Pippin’s father, Charles. Sabrina Harper’s Fastrada not only “spreads a little sunshine,” but tosses in some sultry steam heat to boot.
The company’s collective expertise is particularly welcome because here’s the thing about this musical: its characters are jerks. Nothing particularly vicious, evil, villainous about any of them. They’re just lazy, greedy, pushy, lusty doltish and largely unlovable. Our hero whines and snivels, never realizing when he has it good. His tour guide through life is hostile and hectoring ready to set the poor kid on fire if it makes for a good show.
Do these players know that they are kind of obnoxious. Oh, yes they do. But when they open up their mouths and rip through songs like “Corner of the Sky” “War is a Science” or “Miss the Man,” you forgive their foibles, especially when so much cool boom! and flash! is part of the package.
How cool? Just for a sampling, there’s a rather nifty bit that has Pippin having a conversation with the decapitated body of a not quite dead soldier. Snider lets everyone play and cavort during a merry entr’acte. Dmitrious Bistrevsky does a feat called Rolla Bolla that looks like it must certainly end in the summoning of paramedics and the white hot debauchery of “With You” begins with Pippin discovering some highly limber ladies (“Oh right, sex!” our hero declaims) and concludes amidst a veritable orgy in an animal cage (suggestively if lustily depicted).
The named actors, as noted mentioned, are put through their paces as well. Thomas, a legitimate triple threat performer, has a mighty tenor range and a physique that is clearly not taxed by climbing, balancing or all manner of dancing. He’s perhaps a bit more hunkish than Pippins past, but Thomas is plenty boyish and can carry off the petulance and loveable cluelessness. One wonders if the part’s originator, Rubinstein, gave him any tips.
The less revealed about Martin’s show-stopping rendition of “No Time at All,” the better the viewer’s potential enjoyment. The lady’s a comedy pro with dryness in her delivery and slyness in her looks and she is given the musical’s bounciest number and the most tender verse. Martin, who is 67, makes one helluva convincing case for carpe diem and the first act standing ovation she received opening night was richly deserved.
This “Pippin” is enough to make a person want to run away and join the circus. Watching an extraordinary young man attempt that very feat will have to suffice.
“Pippin” plays 8 p.m. Tue.-Fri., 2 and 8 p.m. Sat., 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sun.; through Nov. 9 at 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. $43-$103. (800) 982-2787, www.HollywoodPantages.com.