A.R.T. Brings Stunning, Profound ‘Pippin’ to Life (Five Stars)

by Mike Hoban

Pippin: Presented by the American Repertory Theatre. At the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge. Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, book by Roger O. Hirson, directed by A.R.T. Artistic Director Diane Paulus. Circus choreography by Gypsy Snider; Set design by designer Scott Pask; Costume design by Dominique Lemieux. Through January 20t at the Loeb Drama Center. website

As a child and carrying into present adulthood, I never once had the desire to go to the circus. I’ve never been a big fan of clowns, trained animals, or the smell of dung. But had the circus ever been like the one that keeps Pippin from finding his true “corner of the sky,” in the A.R.T.’s stunning re-imagining of the iconic musical, I think I would have run away to join one – probably right around puberty. This is an exceptional production in more ways than one – first for its use of circus performers in place of the theater troupe portrayed in traditional incarnations of the musical; and two, for the ACTUAL circus performers who perform an array of cunning stunts while fitting seamlessly into the production (and bringing a healthy dose of sex appeal as an additional distraction).

The show opens with “Magic to Do”, as the Leading Player/Ringmaster (the marvelous Patina Miller) introduces Pippin to the audience, and she informs us that he is looking to get started in his quest for an extraordinary life in the terrific number, “Corner of the Sky”. As it turns out, his life is anything but ordinary, as he is actually a French Prince, the son of Emperor Charlemagne, leader of the Holy Roman Empire. Pippin is returning home from his schooling and tells his father that he wants to join him and his step-brother Lewis in the battle against the Visigoths. Charles reluctantly takes Pippin along, much to the delight of his scheming stepmother, Fastrada, who would like nothing more than to see her dim and aggressive son Lewis become heir to the throne in the event of Pippin’s demise.

The reality of war isn’t quite what Pippin is looking for in his quest for the “extraordinary life” and the Leading Player and the circus troupe take him through a series of other trials including sexual escapades and murderous political intrigue. It isn’t until Pippin meets the widowed Catherine at the height of his existential despair that he begins to get a clue about this whole happiness and meaning of life thing, and we’re not sure if he’s ever going to find his answers.

Director Diane Paulus’ production is remarkable, both conceptually and in execution. She seamlessly melds actual circus performers (choreographed by Gypsy Snider of Montreal-based circus troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main – which translates into “Seven Fingers” for us non-Francophones) into musical theater, and the results are astonishing – with the actors participating in the tumbles and death-defying stunts and the circus performers singing and dancing. The show is choreographed by Chet Walker, who was a close collaborator of Bob Fosse (who directed the original production), so even if you’ve never seen a Fosse show, but saw even a commercial for “All That Jazz”, you’ll know it’s Fosse’s handiwork.

The cast and production team is loaded with Tony Award winners and nominees, and their pedigree shows. Patina Miller’s Leading Player is a slinky, sexy form of devil, seducing Pippin with the usual (but powerful) brands of sin like lust and power in what he believes is his pursuit of an extraordinary life. Her big brown eyes and radiant smile are great sales tools for her brand of fulfillment, which Pippin eagerly buys. And she’s a terrific singer and dancer to boot. Matthew James Thomas’ Pippin (who reminded me of “That 70’s Show’s” Topher Grace) projects a real sense of naïveté as he is led by the nose (or ego or crotch) by LP, and he’s got a nice set of pipes as well, which he puts to use best in “Corner of the Sky”, “Morning Glow”, and the “Love Song” duet with (the utterly charming Rachel Bay Jones’) Catherine.

Andrea Martin (one of my favorite female comic actresses from her days on SCTV) does a terrific star turn as Pippin’s grandmother, Berthe, and does some really surprising things in her role (you’ll have to see it). The rest of the cast is top notch as well, especially King Charles and his bombshell step wife Fastrada (real life husband and wife Broadway vets Terrence Mann and Charlotte d’Amboise). And Andrew Cekala (who appeared as the Dauphin in the A.R.T.s production of “Marie Antoinette” this past summer) plays a sympathetic Theo well. But the show is nearly stolen by the athletic and acrobatic circus performers who make you wonder throughout the show if there’s going to be some horrible accident – until you remember that it’s their job.

This is a truly great revival of a show, much more profound than you would think if you’ve only seen the watered down versions presented by regional theaters and high schools. I asked a woman – a veteran theatergoer – who was sitting in front of me who had seen the original Broadway production (with Ben Vereen as the Leading Player) how the show stacked up to the original, and she was effusive in her praise for the production. “It was pretty damn good,” she said with a smile.

For more information, see www.amrep.org/events/show/pippin.