‘Pippin’: Splashy, Non-stop Circus of a Revival

“Pippin,” the revival of the 1972 Bob Fosse-shaped musical, which roared into town at the National Theatre, is part big, splashy Broadway musical, part Cirque de Soleil on steroids. It runs through Jan. 4.

Tony Award winner Diane Paulus (she revived “Hair” on Broadway) has injected the original, which featured some of Bob Fosse’s best signature work, and the music and lyrics of Roger O. Hirson and Stephen Schwartz, with the atmospherics and spectacle of a 21st-century circus full of buff acrobats flying through the air, doing impossible things, and a cast that follows them gleefully. Nobody is shot out of a cannon, but they sure have a buzz and energy that looks as if they have.

Yet the show has Fosse’s fingerprints all over it, because the production, which is a non-stop, galloping entertainment for the most part, is, beginning-to-end a show about show biz where Fosse, not Charlemagne, was king.

Ostensibly, “Pippin” is still the same old story, in which the young prince Pippin (an appealing Kyle Dean Massey), the son of Charlemagne (the uneducated, powerful king who brought France out of the Dark Ages) tries to figure out what to do with his life. A studious kid with no flair for hacking and hewing, he feels destined to do something great, something meaningful, something important. Will he be a warrior? A man of the cloth? A regular guy? An artist? A philosopher king?

His father is played by a big-white-haired, irascible, kinetic and energetic John Rubinstein, who was the original Pippin in the 1972 Broadway version, thus getting to play his own father, and he makes the most of it.

Pippin’s guide through the process is a show biz type, in leather and black and straw hat, a person called the Leading Player (Ben Vereen was the original), this time performed by Sasha Allen in a knife-edgy, sexy way, who is all slick leg work, finger-spread in the classic show biz manner. She is a director, promoter, organizer and very cool dancer. In short, she’s a Fosse stand-in and stand out.

During the course of the show, through song, dance and acrobatics of the highest (way up high) order, Pippin, goes through home, glory, the flesh, revolution, politics, encouragement, and ordinary life, framed by the opening and the finale, just like the rest of us.

Here’s the twist, and it is pretty spectacular. Pippin doesn’t seem to realize that he’s joined the circus. If “The Lion King” is about the “Circle of Life,” well, Pippin is about the circus of life.

Stephen Schwartz, who gave us the sweet gospel of “Godspell,” gives us here some of the same musical stew—anthem: “Glory,” an up-with-life: “Spread a Little Sunshine” and assorted songs that give us hints about what life’s all about. Those include an inevitable love song, entitled “Love Song.”

Paulus’s “Pippin” isn’t so much about the music, which resonates in the moment, as it is about show time. It’s the circus and the circus guys and girls who flavor this show doing impossible acts of balance and imbalance, tumbling, curling, acts of magic and strength and twists and bends that are awe-inspiring. It’s all the work of Gypsy Snider of the Montreal circus company “Les 7 doigs de la main” or, simply put, “7 Fingers.”

They rob you blind—you can’t believe your eyes, and yet, there you are. All of the company, at some point or another, get involved in this including the glorious undefeatable Lucie Arnaz as Pippin’s hot grandmother Berthe, doing some truly death-defying things way up high. At this pace, it’s a wonder if the cast will survive its stay in Washington.

Circus and all, this is still Fosse’s show—it’s come straight out of the carny midway, the ragged burlesque show, the vaudeville bill, the song-and-dance and chorus line of the American musical, where Fosse made his bones, changing the genre in his image. Think “Cabaret.” Think “Chicago” and “Sweet Charity” and “All That Jazz” with a Miller Lite fizz to it. Every move by Allen, the girls, the leaps and jumps, the sexy “flesh” scenes, the hands, the moves, low to the ground or high in the air are like a love song to Fosse.

All of it is tremendously entertaining, involving at a level where sensation lies, but the heart can hardly keep up. In the end, Pippin meets his soulmate, a widow with an estate, a son with a duck and serfs. She’s lovely as played by Kristine Reese, insistent, golden-voiced, pushy and sweet.

If that’s not enough, there’s even—briefly—a dog, very cute, perfect for our pet-obsessed age.

And the grand finale. Oh, don’t you worry about that. It may even surprise you, and amaze you and leave you satisfied.

(By the way, it’s always hard to top Fosse—for his own grand finale, on the occasion of the revival of “Sweet Charity” right here in Washington at the National Theater, Fosse, accompanied by his first wife, Gwen Verdon, managed to have a fatal heart attack on the sidewalk on his way to the premiere in 1987 . . . That’s show biz.)


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