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BWW Reviews: Extraordinary Tony-Winning Revival of PIPPIN Somersaults into SoCal

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Let's just all say it. Director Diane Paulus is a frikkin' genius.

From her work in the re-energized hippie rock musical HAIR to her soul-stirring new PORGY & BESS, Paulus has certainly shown an inimitable knack for injecting vibrancy and modern sensibilities into the refreshed classic musicals that she has fashioned lately into, yes, even better ones.

Arguably, her greatest triumph to date is the spectacular new production of PIPPIN, the 2013 Tony-winning revival of Stephen Schwartz's trippy but winsome 1972 musical about the angst-riddled but hyper-aspirational young son of King ("Charles") Charlemagne and his erratic, sometimes frustrating journey of self-discovery.

In her marvelously inventive, re-imagined update---which was first developed at Harvard's American Repertory Theater---Paulus brilliantly orients the topsy-turvy machinations of the entire story (written by Roger O. Hirson) within the canvas-lined confines of a big-top circus. Here, the over-the-top performance troupe that "guides" our hero's search for self-fulfillment aren't merely just actors (or "players") but are also all agile, athletic circus performers that tumble, leap, and balance themselves for our (and Pippin's) entertainment pleasure.

As expected, both Pippin and the audience are equally lulled into submission.

The conceit is pretty genius, actually, so you're left to wonder why such a setting hasn't been attempted for this particular musical in such a scale before. Perhaps it's all about timing, and getting the right ingredients together to make this production so wondrous.

And those ingredients are pretty darn stellar. Combining the talents of seasoned Broadway song-and-dance triple-threats with the magical, risk-taking showmanship of big-top acrobats from Canadian-based Les 7 Doigts de la Main, this eye-popping, visionary new PIPPIN is an extraordinary piece of musical theater entertainment that audiences will truly cheer for and remember fondly for years to come. In addition, Schwartz's music has never seemed more lively than it is now.

Matthew James Thomas

It's no surprise, then, that one of the most thrilling, enjoyable parts of my trip to New York City last year was seeing this wonderfully creative, astonishingly buoyant new revival on stage at the Music Box Theatre on Broadway, with many of the original cast members (including Patina Miller, Matthew James Thomas, and the ever-amazing Andrea Martin) still ensconced in their respective originating roles. I walked away from the show then feeling very lucky and privileged to have had such an incredible, truly unforgettable theater-going experience.

I recall being so wowed and awe-struck by every aspect that filled that Broadway stage---everything from the colorful costumes by Dominique Lemieux, the tent set design by Scott Pask, and the circus illusions created by Paul Kieve, to the OMG-so-good circus acts staged by Gypsy Snider, the Bob Fosse-esque choreography recreated by Chet Walker, the spirited new orchestrations by Larry Hochman, and, of course, the superb ensemble cast that performed the show without a net, so to speak.

So, understandably, I was just as excited that the show's long-awaited first national tour has now set up its big-top at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood for a three-week engagement that runs through November 9. Even better? The L.A. stop of the tour will feature original cast members Matthew James Thomas and Andrea Martin reprising their Broadway roles! That fact alone is worth the price of a ticket!

Yet despite these casting coups for the Los Angeles stop of the tour, the real draw of this PIPPIN revival is still, of course, the show itself. Aside from its memorable, newly reinvigorated music that you'll be humming long after you've left the theater, the truly fascinating thing about this new iteration is that not once do you ever feel that any of the cirque moments are inserted merely for additional ooh's-and-aah's. On the contrary, all of these wow-inducing circus acts are so seamlessly integrated into the proceedings (and blends well with the Fosse-inspired movements) that it's near impossible now to see other productions in the future without them (well, okay, almost impossible... the young kid in me still loves re-watching my DVD of the classic filmed PIPPIN that starred Greatest American Hero's William Katt, all sans circus acts).

Adding these spectacular big-top thrills into PIPPIN presents not only another welcome layer of entertainment value to an already appealing musical, but they also add an additional, more reasonable narrative context that enhances the story and gives purpose to the whimsical silliness of its fourth-wall-breaking characters. Who else but a bunch of daring, risk-averse circus folks can easily convince and manipulate Pippin, our young, gullible hero?

Purists may balk at Paulus' cosmetic and staging enhancements, but it's clearly evident that she has only elevated this show to an even higher platform---albeit one that they brazenly leap from for greater thrills. When all the clouds of smoke finally dissipates, what you're ultimately left with is a first-rate musical that is both thought-provoking and exceptionally entertaining.

Andrea Martin

And speaking of entertaining... let me just say here and now that Martin's scene-stealing, Tony-winning turn as Pippin's still-virile grandmother Berthe is one of those performances you just have to experience live for yourself; and the fact that she has agreed to re-visit the role again, especially in a touring company, makes it the must-see performance of the year. I was lucky enough to see PIPPIN on Broadway during her final weeks in the role before she left, and felt even then what an enchanting, career-enhancing turn this is for the veteran actress.

Playful, spry, and altogether delightfully hilarious, Martin's part in "No Time At All"---the show's infamous audience sing-along now augmented with Berthe rising high above on a hoop-shaped trapeze, beaming with coquettish glee---is a real highlight of the show. Everyone was so enamored by her performance during the tour's Opening Night in L.A. that we all couldn't help but jump up and give her an extended standing ovation for what seemed like a gazillion minutes---even before she could finish her song! Man, talk about a showstopper---and a well-deserved one! (For her part, Martin seemed incredibly touched by the cheers but continued on with the professionalism you'd expect from a class act).

Seriously, I cannot stress this enough: to miss her play this role in this revival would be a shame. (Pause for a moment and go online for tickets, then come back and finish reading this).

John Rubinstein, Sabrina Harper

Of course, Martin isn't the only great actor in the show; in fact, what tremendously helps make PIPPIN shine beyond its spiffy new surroundings under the big-top is the collective performances delivered by its über-talented cast. It probably takes a certain kind of performer (with a certain kind of skill-set) to be in this re-envisioned PIPPIN, and, my gosh, these guys are quite a find.

Playing the title role once again for the L.A. leg of the tour is Thomas, who's as rambunctious and limber as I remember from seeing him play the same role on Broadway. Both endearingly vulnerable and downright sexy, the boyish Thomas---whose sprightly athleticism is complemented with a pleasantly sweet singing voice that I really love listening to---is a truly winning Pippin, able to charm not only the audience but his fellow players as well. Even his character's goofy gaffes, childish protestations, and innocent naiveté comes off as adorkably cute, making you care deeply about his well-being even more. Plus, I'm seriously amazed that he never sounds winded as he sings while sprinting, climbing and tumbling across the stage throughout the show (even though, initially in his opening "Corner of the Sky," he sounded like an actor vocally overcompensating for the hugeness of the venue, perhaps considering that the Music Box Theater in NYC is significantly smaller than the Pantages).

As such, the likable Thomas shows playful rapport with PIPPIN's resident svengali, the intimidating Leading Player played by HAIR alumnus (and Top Five finalist of TV's The Voice) Sasha Allen. A personal favorite of mine since her appearance in one of my favorite modern movie musicals Camp, Allen is slinky and seductive in a role that's part narrator, part master manipulator---a ringmaster, if you will.

Of course, one of Paulus' eyebrow-raising changes to the new PIPPIN is to switch the gender of the Leading Player, a role that had always been played by a male actor in previous iterations (Ben Vereen won the Tony for the original production; later, Patina Miller won the Tony for the revival). The gender-switcheroo doesn't really make much of a narrative dent as you think it might, though there does seem to be an extra subtle layer of menace in the second act when she "instructs" a would-be paramour for Pippin. But all in all, Allen brings great vocal work to the role---her bewitchingly raspy voice and her numerous effortless vocal runs are so chock-full of ear-candy amazingness that it forced me to have several moments of euphoria during the show.

Another welcome presence in the show is John Rubinstein---who originated the title role of PIPPIN in the original 1972 Broadway production. Forty-plus years later, the actor now plays Pippin's despot daddy King Charlemagne in the tour. Joyfully ornery, Rubinstein's tyrant ruler is a hoot to watch, particularly when dealing with his kingdom's subjects or trading barbs (and knives) with his ambitious new---and much younger---wife Fastrada (played with vivacious friskiness by the wonderful Sabrina Harper).

The remainder of the excellent main cast includes Callan Bergmann as Pippin's self-absorbed, amusingly dim-witted step-bro Lewis; the gorgeous-sounding Kristine Reese, who wins my heart (and tugs our heart strings) as Pippin's single-mom lady-love Catherine; and the adorable Lucas Shultz who plays Catherine's young son Theo (Shultz played the role during Opening Night; he alternates the role with Zachary Mackiewicz).

And, of course, it would be amiss not to mention the contributions of the outstanding troupe of high-energy circus performers, acrobats, and singer/dancers that have all breathed new life into this revitalized PIPPIN. Whether performing gravity-defying leaps through small hoops or balancing themselves in pure displays of strength, these men and women are stage superstars in their own right. They are also---surprisingly enough---brilliant comic actors, going full-throttle on their silly antics (wait until you meet the animals down at the farm!). And the harmonies they produce? Just lovely.

Long before seeing this revival of PIPPIN, I was actually fortunate enough to review a national touring company of the stunning cirque stage show TRACES a few years ago, which was also produced and conceived by Montréal-based Les 7 Doigts de la Main. Even in that show, I recognized their extraordinary displays of human agility as something quite special. So, as expected, their jaw-dropping acts of super-human trickery that have been integrated into PIPPIN signal one of the most fortuitous, mutually-beneficial marriages of disparate entertainment factions ever mashed together for one show. Bravo!

The magic they do---just for us---truly is miraculous. DO NOT miss your chance to see this incredible show.

Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8ivemlq

Photos of the National Tour Company of PIPPIN by Terry Shapiro. Photos of Matthew James Thomas and Andrea Martin by Joan Marcus.

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Performances of PIPPIN at the Pantages Theatre continue through November 9, 2014 and are scheduled Tuesday through Friday at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 pm and 8 pm, and Sundays at 1pm and 6:30pm.

Tickets can be purchased online at HollywoodPantages.com, by phone at 1-800-982-ARTS(2787) or in person at the Pantages box office (opens daily at 10am) and all Ticketmaster outlets. The Pantages Theatre is located at 6233 Hollywood Boulevard, just east of Vine Street.

For more information, please visit HollywoodPantages.com.

The tour will also make a stop at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa beginning November 11.


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