The musical Pippin has always relied on showbiz dazzle to make it more than it is. In fact, when you think about the crux of Pippin and its message, it's that we all rely on costumes and lights and man-made excitement to make our lives more interesting.
In the original production, Bob Fosse's iconic choreography gave the show a distinct, sinister and sexy look. In this recent Broadway revival, brought here by Broadway at the Hobby Center, it's the death-defying acrobatics and circus tricks that define Diane Paulus' vision. And that's a very welcome thing.
When you strip Pippin of its sparkles, it's not a particularly strong musical. Stephen Schwartz's score is flimsy, with the pop-tinged hit "Corner of the Sky" coming early and then a parade of bland, nearly forgettable tunes thereafter.
The episodic plot about a wayward prince trying to find his purpose through war, sex, fame and, ultimately, love, is — unsurprisingly — a popular choice for college theater programs. (My companion and I realized we had both been in productions during our younger years.)
It's up to the director's vision and the performers' skills to make Pippin more than a two-dimensional frolic. Embracing the spectacle, rather than scoffing at it, is what helps make this two-and-a-half hour musical fly by.
Using illusions and magic tricks, Cirque du Soleil-inspired feats of daring, and a welcome touch of that Fosse style (choreographer Chet Walker worked "in the style of" rather than straight-up copying), this Pippin is out to make you gasp.
Even the casting is surrounded by light bulbs, with Gabrielle McClinton starring as the Leading Player; '70s TV star Adrienne Barbeau as grandmother Berthe; and John Rubinstein, the original Pippin himself, donning the crown as a very charismatic king.
What's an even bigger surprise is that this star casting is terrific, with all three delivering devilishly good performances. (Sabrina Harper as Pippin's wicked stepmother is also very good.)
Barbeau stops the show as the high-flying Berthe, who rips off her dress to reveal a corset before being daintily hoisted into the air for a sensuous routine on a hoop with one of the muscled ensemble members. The woman is 70 years old.
Rubinstein clearly relishes revisiting the show in which he made his Broadway debut; his acting could be termed "schmacting" if he wasn't so darn delightful. His king is blustery, easily distracted and wholly focused on winning a (seemingly pointless) war, but he's also invested in his son's future — namely that he should figure one out.
Brian Flores, making his tour debut, plays Pippin as a kind of self-absorbed millennial, but manages to hold his own against the experienced cast, perhaps even eliciting sympathy from the audiences as he pinballs between situations without ever stopping to decide what he really wants. With so much magic going on around him, it's understandable that he gets lost in the circus.
McClinton adds much menace as the razzle dazzling Leading Player, a part she reprises from the Broadway production. Though she beguiles Pippin and the audience through the first act, her whispers becomes more and more tinged with danger until she turns into a kind of temping showbiz devil who sings in the story’s dark ending.
Pippin plays at the Hobby Center through Sunday October 25. CultureMap arts writer Tarra Gaines contributed to this review.