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BWW Review: The Orpheum Offers a Flippin' PIPPIN

There are the warhorse musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin; there are the lavish productions befitting Phantoms in opera houses and French revolutionaries and revisionist fairy tales (and you know the ones I mean); there are the Disney powerhouses; and . . . there are musicals of a quaint, mind-nudging nature that don't quite fit into any category. Certainly THE FANTASTICKS comes to mind, and -- at least in the previous productions I have seen -- Stephen Schwartz's PIPPIN. Somewhere in my video collection is a filmed version of the musical with William Katt, and just a few years ago PIPPIN was the first musical staged at the shiny, new Playhouse on the Square (with Alvaro Francisco stepping in for a sidelined Jordan Nichols). I sometimes think that small-scale musicals are better suited to venues less grand than the Orpheum; I needn't have worried, however, as PIPPIN has acquired the kind of theatrical, Cirque du Soleil-style atmosphere that perfectly suits the show's opening number, "Magic to Do."

In point of fact, PIPPIN, like THE FANTASTICKS, is a teasing bag of tricks. It's a play that never lets us forget that it's all about theatre. A Leading Player (the terrific Gabrielle McClinton, resembling a young Chita Rivera and sleekly attired in black) could be a female variation on Shakespeare's Prospero, summoning her minions (great acrobats as well as Fosse-fied dancers) to tell the story of the great Charlemagne's oldest son, Pippin, a young man with a mind who is determined to fulfill his destiny. The complication, however, is that Charlemagne's current wife, the scheming Fastrada, wants her husband's crown to fit the empty head of her self-absorbed son, the macho Lewis.

The first act is concerned with Pippin's return to court, his desire to become a soldier (he is amusingly out of step with everyone else, both figuratively and literally). As Charlemagne, Lewis, and Pippin all go to war, the red-lit "Glory" reminds us that, though this play initially seems light and charming, there is a dark underside to these proceedings; and Pippin, our "Everyman," is determined to set things right. He leaves the battlefield to return to the simplicity of his childhood (all bouncing balls and hoola hoops), and he visits his grandmother Berthe (a surprising turn by film and television veteran Adrienne Barbeau, who seems to have fallen into someone's Fountain of Youth and looks as if she could have played "Fastrada"). Returning home and influenced by the cunning Fastrada, Pippin decides to dispatch his father and put his own ideals to work (something easier said than done).

The second act is altogether different, as Pippin finds himself on the estate of the widow Catherine and her duck-cradling son Theo (thank goodness the Peabody ducks didn't get the part). The fame for which he thought he was destined certainly doesn't seem likely with all the farming he has to do (the "Extraordinary" number is cleverly presented and delightfully executed). Will Pippin ever, in fact, amount to much? Or will he, like so many of us in the audience, find that his "Corner of the Sky" doesn't have to occupy "dead center"?

While PIPPIN's score doesn't have "raindrops and roses and whiskers and kittens" running through our minds after we leave the theatre, it is nonetheless pleasant; and in songs like "Magic to Do," "Corner of the Sky," and "I Guess I'll Miss the Man," the melodies are infectious. Moreover, Conductor Ryan Cantwell's fine musicians have their visual counterpart in the Bob Fosse-styled choreography of Chet Walker -- the stylized poses, the straw hat-twirling. Scott Pask's circus set, with its trapezes and ladders, is a marvel; and the acrobatic dancers keep challenging the eye (I have no idea how a torso-less pair of legs moved so naturally across the stage!)

While the Leading Player has the ability to "work magic" as well as dismantle it, the real impresario here is Diane Paulus, who manages to maintain as perfect a balance as any acrobat in the show; and her cast of players is a joy. John Rubinstein, who in 1972 originated the part of "Pippin," exudes authority as the war-loving King (in appearance, he reminds me of local author Vincent Astor), and his singing is resonant and powerful. As the duplicitous mother and son "monsters," Sabrina Harper and Erik Altemus are physically desirable if morally reprehensible (I particularly like Ms. Harper's neckwear, reminiscent of the collar of "the Emperor Ming" in FLASH GORDON or that of Snow White's evil stepmother). As I previously observed, the stunning Adrienne Barbeau as "Berthe" is quite different from the ladies I associate with the part (THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES' Irene Ryan originated the role, and Martha Raye had some success with it as well). Bradley Benjamin brings a Kristen Chenoweth quality to the role of "Catherine," and young Jake Berman (alternativing with Ben Krieger) has a sweet moment with "Corner of the Sky." As "Pippin," Brian Flores reminded me of a toned-down Jerry Lewis; he is a kind of "Charlie Brown" of the Middle Ages, well-meaning, but stumbling as he tries to find himself. He also has quite a vocal range.

The "new" PIPPIN can stand next to the original -- only, perhaps, a bit taller. It doesn't just "sing" about magic, it uses it. Book by Roger O. Hirson.Through November 22.

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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)