Thursday, December 18, 2014

Pippin Theatre Review

More than Enough Magic to Do
by Josh Simon (Contributing Editor)

There isn't one singular talent among the cast of Pippin, currently performing at the National Theatre (through January 4, 2015.) That's because each cast member is so multi-talented, that they will amaze, astound, and amaze all over again at every turn.

Let’s get one thing straight from the start: Go see this show. See it twice even. Diane Paulus (a Tony Award-winner for directing this production on Broadway) reimagines the show as a Big Top spectacle, with so many acrobatics and amusements occurring simultaneously, that you can't possibly catch them all. This is demonstrated early on, during the opening number, “Magic to Do.” According to a press release, the number includes 17 acrobatic feats. So, despite not being able to catch them all... You'll surely be amazed no matter where you look. This show rarely stops to take a breath, doing so only to take yours away.

In its original incarnation, Pippin presents a group of traveling players telling the story of the medieval prince of the show’s title, searching for something to give his life purpose. In the Paulus version, the players are circus performers, with the Leading Player (Sasha Allen) supervising the tent (an actual tent, courtesy of designer Scott Pask.) Allen is a powerful presence with a voice to match, and adds some signature venom to a role already dripping with sarcastic wit. At times, she is more Diva than Ringleader; but with a voice like hers blowing the roof off the National, she proves she's firmly in command. Pippin is played wonderfully by triple-threat, triple-name Kyle Dean Massey, never satisfied but always delivering... be it his fine-tuned comedic chops or his golden voice. Portraying the title character of an iconic musical sets a high standard; but an ace performer like Massey exceeds that standard, and makes it seem effortless.

On the subject of ace performers, one standout has a bit more experience with the show than his castmates: John Rubinstein, after originating the title character in 1972, returns as Pippin’s father King Charles, stealing each of his scenes with hilarious vigor. But if stealing scenes is a crime, lock up showbiz legacy Lucie Arnaz for life. As feisty grandma Berthe, Arnaz stops the show in its tracks... to deliver some blunt, musical wisdom, and redefines what it means to age gracefully.

And yet, knife throwing and trapeze-flying aside, the show still holds up after forty years. The themes, messages and truths within the music (Wicked’s Stephen Schwartz) and book (master of one-liners Roger O. Hirson) are just as relevant today, as they must have been decades ago. If anything, it's even more heartbreaking to realize that one can still feel as unfulfilled as Pippin, even when surrounded by endless spectacle. As dazzling as it appears, Pippin is (at its core) about finding joy in the purest and simplest of things. And this production, after bombarding you with its sensory delights, really packs a wallop with its truth.

Grade: A+