ART’s circus revival breathes new life into the classic Stephen Schwartz musical.
This Broadway production of Pippin, the classic Stephen Schwartz musical that first premiered in 1972, is everything a revival should be: a piece that adds something brand new to the show without it feeling like it's possible to be performed any other way. In this version of events, the story of Pippin, Charlemagne's aimless and discontented heir, is told by a troupe of circus performers who bring the story to life using the most fantastic tricks of the trade you can imagine. This is a show that knows how to sparkle.
The Story of a Prince
Pippin begins when the young heir of Charlemagne returns from school, eager to do something meaningful with his life and find "fulfillment." He joins his father's army in their war against the Visigoths, but quickly disenchanted, he turns to political insurrection, everyday country life and even ruling the kingdom, but nothing ever seems to be enough. Meanwhile, the story is enacted and guided by a troupe of circus performers led by the Leading Player, who has her own agenda in how she wants Pippin's story to play out.
It's not a fantastic script, and the character of Pippin is eternally shallow and whiny to say the least. From its aborted political commentary and abandonment of the entire royal cast in Act 2 to its rather disjointed episodes, it seems at first an odd choice for a revival. But then you get to the tricks.
A Series of Spectacles
The acrobatics in this musical are both astounding and refreshingly original, keeping the audience constantly on the edge of their seats. Whether it's Andrea Martin as Pippin's grandmother Berthe performing "No Time at All" on a trapeze in a corset and little else or "Rolla Bolla" boy Orion Griffiths performing terrifying balancing acts and feats of strength throughout, this is a show that loves to entertain.
The production does a great job balancing these astonishing acrobatics with simple ballads like classic "Corner of the Sky," keeping the effect of both fresh and engaging to an audience. My personal favorite number is "Glory," the extended battle sequence performed by the troupe of Players that consists of a soft shoe dance number as well as sword juggling and more overt depictions of fighting that Pippin bumbles through. Is Anything Real?
Pippin is ultimately a commentary on human shallowness and the tendency to get so entranced by excitement and glamour that you forget about the important things in life. The problem is, the glamour is the heart of the show and its most exciting element, so if anything you may feel yourself tricked at the end of the show.
The battle between the Players, who want to create the largest spectacle they can, and the characters in the story, who only want to be happy, is an intriguing one, however. The fight is most exemplified in the struggle between romantic Catherine (Rachel Bay Jones) and the Lead Player over the sort of role she is allowed to play in Pippin's life, bringing new energy to a plot that by this point is old and predictable. This was Carly Hughes' first week as the Lead Player, and she brings the seduction and nuance necessary to prove that this character is the real star of the show.
But really, Pippin is an ensemble show, a piece where the group of actors tell a story together and no one performer's antics outshine another's. Kyle Dean Massey as Pippin is really more of an audience stand-in than anything else, a lonely actor wandering through this world of immense spectacle and trying to make sense of it all.
Everything from the sequined and revealing costumes to the full circus tent of a set in this production screams larger than life, and if there's anything frustrating about the musical, it's when five different fantastic stunts are happening on stage at once and you can't actually watch it all. Still, that's a small complaint to have about such a beautiful piece. Pippin's Players tell the audience at the beginning they have "Magic to Do," and they certainly succeed in that regard.
Is Pippin more of a circus show than a real musical? Perhaps. Still, it's a fantastic time, and certainly worth seeing if you have any interest in discovering all of the amazing things a single human body can do. This crew definitely won't let you down there.
Pippin plays an open run at the Music Box Theatre. This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.