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Mar 19, 2015

Review: Pippin’ revival an exhilarating production

March 19, 2015

Paul Hyde, [email protected] 4:27 p.m. EDT March 18, 2015

When the motley players of “Pippin” sing “We’ve got magic to do,” you better believe them.

Acrobatics. Juggling. Knife-throwing. Jaw-dropping feats of derring-do.

Oh, and musical magic as well. There’s a lot of that in the terrific circus-inspired revival of “Pippin” that leaped, tumbled and flipped into the Peace Center Tuesday for eight shows through Sunday.

Diane Paulus’ production of Stephen Schwartz’s 1972 musical won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Musical Revival, and it’s easy to see why.

Paulus combines Bob Fosse-style suavity — jazz-hands and hip-swivels aplenty — with a heady mix of European-style circus stunts to produce an exhilarating entertainment.

Paulus breathes new life into a show that already was tuneful, funny and sweet. Schwartz’s rock-and-pop inflected score includes such Broadway classics as “Magic To Do,” “Corner of the Sky” and “Morning Glow.”

“Pippin” centers on the young prince of the title who’s searching for meaning in a tumultuous world that vaguely resembles the Middle Ages.

In quick succession, Pippin samples war, pleasures of the flesh, revolution, kingship, art and religion — but nothing quite satisfies.

Schwartz and book writer Roger O. Hirson are setting the scene for a marvelous “Candide”-like conclusion that’s as stark and surprising as it is true to life.

The show-within-a-show features a troupe of actors telling the story of “Pippin,” which they relay in a rhapsodic, over-the-top style, full of pratfalls and sublime silliness.

The ensemble of acrobats, meanwhile, performs some eye-popping routines, designed by Gypsy Snider of the Montreal-based troupe 7 Fingers (Les 7 Doigts de la Main).

Bob Fosse’s original 1972 choreography, recreated and added to by Fosse protege Chet Walker, is something to relish. It’s so rare to see Fosse’s sinuous moves so deftly rendered.

The cast is fantastic. Sam Lips is a winning Pippin, earnest and hopeful, caressing songs such as “With You” and “Corner of the Sky” with an appealing tenor and pure falsetto.

Sasha Allen, who rose to fame as a finalist in the 2013 TV season of “The Voice,” is cast as the Leading Player, the show’s emcee. On Tuesday’s opening night, however, understudy Lisa Karlin substituted for Allen. No worries, Karlin brings a feline slinkiness and a powerful voice to the role.

It’s a special treat to see John Rubinstein as Pippin’s father. The veteran actor originated the role of Pippin in the 1972 Broadway production. In this revival, Rubinstein proves to be a nimble comic actor, embracing the role of the daffy and despotic Charlemagne with great gusto.

Another show biz veteran, Priscilla Lopez, plays Pippin’s grandmother Berthe, delivering the ultimate carpe diem song and sing-along, “No Time at All, with life-affirming zest. The 67-year-old follows up that showstopper with some remarkable moves on the trapeze — a breathtaking moment of theatrical transcendence.

Sabrina Harper, with a megawatt smile, exudes glamor and leggy sex-appeal as Fastrada, Pippin’s devilishly scheming stepmother.

Kristine Reese, as Pippin’s love interest Catherine, demonstrates that there’s more than one way to stop a show — by tugging at the heartstrings. Reese brings warmth and vulnerability — and a bountiful soprano — to the role.

Callan Bergmann is Pippin’s humorously conceited step-brother, Lewis. On Tuesday night, Lucas Schultz (who alternates with Stephen Sayegh) was a forthright and winsome Theo, Catherine’s son.

Ryan Cantwell conducts the excellent pit orchestra, which includes some members of the Greenville Symphony.

Theater-goers should note: The show includes some strong language.