‘Pippin’ is a bit of Vegas, a bit of Cirque du Soleil .. and a whole lotta fun
Pippin was one of those shows at the vanguard of the quasi-revolutionary theater movement in the 1970s (after Hair), when youth culture was taking over, and when politics and social commentary — even guised in a remote setting — were considered fair game for musical theater. It was couched in the idiom of a circus, with a Leading Player serving as narrator of the life of Pippin the Hunchback, the elder son of Charlemagne, who expanded the Holy Roman Empire across Europe. It’s a kind of picaresque as Pippin searches for purpose, meets with disillusionment about politics and warfare, leads a revolt against his dad, eventually settling in for a quite country life, finally content to enjoy the simpler things. Beneath all that is a metaphor for imperialism (it emerged during the height of the Vietnam War), a Faustian cautionary tale.
It also has lots of cute songs and pretty costumes.
And that’s how a lot of people still see it. Part of the boon of historical-but-historically-inaccurate musicals (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita), Pippin has been a staple of high schools drama clubs for 40 years — colorful, joyous, funny. Its more brooding nature has gone largely unexplored — at least until Diane Paulus’ 2013 revival, which arrived at Fair Park Music Hall this week. It has all the modern sheen we expect in the bombastic, post-Disney/post-Boulil-and-Schoenberg era: The dazzling scenery and costumes are present, as is Bob Fosse’s iconic style of dance and a Vegasy carnival atmosphere (updated from “Ringling Bros.” to “Cirque du Soleil”). But there’s also the existential undercurrent that makes Pippin a deceptively dark bit of theater; the new ending even imbues it with a slightly fatalistic tone.
None of that, however, is at the expense of spectacle. This national tour glitters with energy and creativity. There are full-on Cirque-like acts, from acrobatics to juggling to Hula-Hooping, that clamor for your attention — none more impressive, though, than when 70-year-old Adrienne Barbeau sheds her muumuu to reveal a rockin’ bod, only to perform trapeze work sans harness while singing the infectious “Just No Time At All.”
She’s a jolt of glamour, as is John Rubinstein — Broadway’s original Pippin nearly half a century ago — as a scampish Charlemagne. Lisa Karlin, who understudied opening night as the Leading Player, proved breathtakingly charismatic and more than a little devilish. In fact, the only weak spot was Sam Lips as Pippin, whose voice is pleasant but bland and who never projects much authority onstage. Fortunately, he’s too pretty to worry about it.
The show also serves as a reminder of how solid Stephen Schwartz’s score is. The iconic songs are plentiful (“Magic to Do,” “Corner of the Sky,” “Spread a Little Sunshine,” etc.) and you’re apt to want to sing along (and you can, on “Just No Time At All”). But resist the urge and instead sit back and be entertained. Cuz that’s what this Pippin is: Unbridled entertainment.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 10, 2015.