BWW REVIEW: PIPPIN Brings Its Magic Back to Boston

Book by Roger O. Hirson; music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz; director, Diane Paulus; choreographer, Chet Walker; circus creation, Gypsy Snider; music supervision and arrangements, Nadia DiGiallonardo; orchestrations, Larry Hochman; scenic design, Scott Pask; lighting design, Kenneth Posner; costume design, Dominique Lemieux; sound design, Jonathan Deans and Garth Helm; illusions, Paul Kieve; music director, Ryan Cantwell; production stage manager, Marian DeWitt

Cast in Order of Appearance:

Leading Player, Gabrielle McClinton; Fastrada, Sabrina Harper; Berthe, Adrienne Barbeau; Lewis, Skyler Adams; Charles, John Rubinstein; Pippin, Brian Flores; Catherine, Bradley Benjamin; Theo, Jake Berman (Ben Krieger, alternate); The Players: Keven Langlois Boucher, Stephen Brower, Mark Burrell, Mathew DeGuzman, Aerial Emery, Laura Hall, Nicolas Jelmoni, Anna Kachalova, Alan Kelly, Roman Khayrullin, Nico Maffey, Charlotte O'Sullivan, Anna Schnaitter, Katie Smith, Alena Watters, Kate Wesler, Borris York

Performances and Tickets:

Now through February 14, Boston Opera House, 539 Washington St., Boston, Mass.; tickets start at $44 and are available online at www.BroadwayInBoston.com or by calling Ticketmaster at 800-982-2787.

The extraordinary journey of the Broadway revival of PIPPIN began at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge a few years back, and now that triumphant Tony Award-winning musical, directed by Diane Paulus, is back in Boston via the national tour. While some tweaks have since been made to the production that had its Broadway tryout at the A.R.T., the show's exuberant joie de vivre and circus-inspired excitement are still intact. If anything, the show's politics and humor have been heightened in this iteration, thanks largely to its sensational cast.

Newcomer Brian Flores is making his professional debut as Pippin, and his clumsily dorky take on the role is perfectly suited to the eager young man in search of his purpose. Fresh out of college and hungry for adventure, Pippin can't wait to earn his stripes on the battlefield and in the bedroom. He wants to prove his worth not only to his father, King Charles (John Rubinstein), but also to himself. Armed with equal amounts of naïveté and bravado, Pippin sets out to accomplish the extraordinary.

However, the brutalities of war and the unsavoriness of sexual orgies leave him feeling disappointed and empty. Disillusioned and depressed, he turns to the young widow Catherine (Bradley Benjamin) and her recalcitrant son Theo (Jake Berman) for solace. Soon, though, Pippin wonders if the monotony of everyday life on a farm will be enough for him. Ultimately he is tempted to engage in one final act of extreme bravery in order to achieve the blazing glory for which he yearns.

In this spectacular and innovative revival, Paulus has fashioned the Leading Player (Gabrielle McClinton) as a charismatic but mysterious ring master who entices Pippin to join her traveling troupe of circus performers in enacting the adventures Pippin so desperately seeks. Vaudeville acts serving as story-telling chapters become death-defying feats of derring-do as acrobats and ensemble members alike execute breathtaking stunts using hoops, silks, poles and trapezes. Staging elements are so well integrated that it's almost impossible to tell where circus creator Gypsy Snider's Les 7 doigts de la main acrobatics begin and choreographer Chet Walker's Fosse-inspired dancing ends. Every movement is in service to PIPPIN's songs and story, and every note and word is brilliantly rendered.

While the slithering temptress McClinton feels more like a supporting player here than did the commanding Patina Miller in her Tony Award-winning performance, John Rubinstein emerges as a force to be reckoned with as the doddering but deadly King Charles. Rubinstein (the original Pippin in the 1972 Broadway production starring Ben Vereen as the Leading Player) brings delicious off-hand sarcasm to his jaded monarch. He dismisses his dim-witted, muscle-bound son Lewis (Skyler Adams) with as much cool detachment as he dispatches orders of execution for his errant subjects. He succumbs to his emasculating wife Fastrada (Sabrina Harper) demurely, but only because he is too weak to rebuff her ample sexual charms. When dealing with mundane matters of the court, he more often mopes than rules.

As soon as Charles shares the stage with his younger son Pippin, though, it becomes clear that the two have been cut from the same cloth. Rubinstein and Flores exude a palpable father-son chemistry that is only strengthened by their similarly goofy mannerisms and charms. There seems to be a silent understanding between the two of them - perhaps borne of Rubinstein's joy at revisiting PIPPIN and Flores' fresh, wide-eyed exuberance for the role.

The other standout in the cast, as was the case in this revival's original, is the actress playing Pippin's grandmother Berthe. Here the 70-years-young Adrienne Barbeau (Broadway's original Rizzo in Grease and Bea Arthur's daughter Carol in Maude) turns heads with her physique and her show-stopping sing-a-long "No Time at All." Intended originally as a motivational speech designed to help Pippin grab the gusto in life every day he's alive, the song has been upended within this production's circus context to serve as an age-defying paean to sexual vivacity. Barbeau quite literally has a ball with it, performing with infectious chutzpah and panache.

PIPPIN continues at Boston's Opera House through February 14. For lovers of great musical theater, it's the perfect Valentine.

(Photos Courtesy Of Broadway in Boston - National Tour Cast)



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