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BWW Reviews: PIPPIN Builds to a Grand Finale at the Benedum Center

It's no secret that Pippin, one of Stephen Schwartz's earliest hits and one of Bob Fosse's defining masterworks, starts sweet and ends in a very dark place. Honestly, that's what it's famous for. But it was refreshing to hear an apparent first-time viewer whisper behind me, just before the curtain call began, "What the hell was THAT?" If Pippin's bizarre, existential nightmare of an ending doesn't hit you like the musical equivalent of a fist to the throat, it hasn't been done right. And oh boy, has this Pippin been done right.

The show, as written by Schwartz and librettist Roger O. Hirson- and then liberally rewritten by an uncredited Bob Fosse- tells the story of a group of entertainers, led by a charismatic but domineering Leading Player (Sasha Allen), who present a morality play: "The Story of Pippin," featuring a new leading man for one night only (Sam Lips). This new actor takes up the mantle of Pippin, an entirely ordinary man searching desperately for his "corner of the sky," where he can be extraordinary. Pippin has all the advantages in the world- he's the son of Charlemagne (a daffy John Rubenstein, the original Pippin from the first Broadway production), he's just graduated college, he has a doting, albeit horny, grandmother living on an idyllic estate full of hedonistic young people, and there's even a war going on for him to test his mettle. But Pippin is just one big pile of failure, careening madly from one misadventure to the next, until forced to confront his prosaic reality as unexpected lover of Catherine (Kristine Reese), a single mother with a young son, teetering on the verge of middle age. Cue the Leading Player, offering Pippin one last chance to be extraordinary- a Grand Finale.

As the titular Pippin, or at least as the man playing him, Sam Lips walks a fine line between "star power" and "schmuck." He sings well, but doesn't blow you away. He acts with a comfortable, rumpled natural quality that would be right at home on HBO's GIRLS. And when he performs the obligatory shirtless scene- apparently a requirement of every mangenue role in musical theatre from Dreamcoat to Newsies- he looks fit, but not model-fit. In other words, his Pippin is a welcome shift from leading man to everyman. Mr. Lips is also very funny, with a gift for physical comedy that brings much humor to Pippin's endless humiliations and defeats. True, he won't make you forget the immaculate voice of a very young Michael Jackson, who sang the show's big ballads "Corner of the Sky" and "Morning Glow" for Motown, but no one's asking him to be a pyrotechnic vocalist- they're asking him to be Pippin.

Pippin's female counterparts, however, fares slightly less well despite bringing a full Fourth of July fireworks show in her vocal bag of tricks. As the Leading Player, Sasha Allen sometimes over-riffs, losing the sinuous melodies that her character's music relies on. She sings well and dances well, but leans too heavily on the character's facade of narrator and companion, without delving into the secondary position as director and chessmaster of the bizarre show going on "behind the scenes." As the story unravels and Pippin and Catherine start to go off-book, Sasha's Leading Player feels less a malevolent force of nature, and more like a put-upon stage manager dealing with a show on its last legs. Kristine Reese, as Catherine, comes across better, though she looks and acts a little young to be believable as the "older woman" in Pippin's life. In a tragicomic role, she handles the tragic a little better than the comic, sometimes seeming a little Galindafied in her attempts to be Pippin's manic pixie dream girl.

The supporting cast, however, is nearly flawless. John Rubenstein's Charlemagne aims not for the Shakespearean grandeur of Eric Berry in the original production, or the aging-rock-star dissolution of Terrence Mann. Instead, he seemingly channels John Cleese, bringing a Monty Pythonesque silliness to the role of the great king and warlord. His new wife, Fastrada, played by Molly Tynes, dances like crazy, and appears, thanks to the clever direction of Diane Paulus and choreography of Chet Walker, to be a Fosse character dropped into a non-Fosse world. Prisiclla Lopez's Berthe is sassy and snappy, though the role, with its unexpected acrobatic turn, benefits from the element of surprise that comes from having a celebrity in the part. And, of course, the mix of circus folk, burlesque performers, musical theatre singers and magicians that make up the rest of the cast provide endless sensory overload, filling every number with a cascading parade of sights and sounds.

The theatre nerd in me is very glad to see that Schwartz, along with whoever is editing the script these days, ironed out some of the lumpier moments in the original show. Moments that were once cheap platitudes, like the one-liners in "On the Right Track," or simple fluff, like the lyrics to "War is a Science," have been rewritten into more satirical material. While Charlemagne's song was once a Savoy-style patter about a convoluted, topsy-turvy battle plan, it's now a paean to the way master strategists plan battles around how many soldiers they can safely lose without it negatively affecting them. Even Pippin's notoriously corny uptempo song, "Extraordinary," no longer has its groaners about shrieking goats and leaking moats. (However, Schwartz still insists on using the Early Modern English word "pelf" instead of "health" in "Simple Joys," for reasons only understandable to he and probably some friends from college- it reeks of being some kind of inside joke from the original CMU workshop production.)

This modern classic may have Schwartz's famously cheerful pop sound, but it also has Bob Fosse's famously nihilistic undercurrents, and the two clash sometimes. But the end product is joyously strange, and if you're in the market for something a little different in your musical theatre, there aren't many better examples of musical-burlesque-circus-magic-surrealist-existential fusion to be found. In fact, this may very well be the only one.

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From This Author Greg Kerestan