Dateline- Dallas Summer Musicals saves the best for last with its 75th anniversary season closer, Pippin, presented at the Music Hall at Fair Park through July 19 (it’ll also play at Fort Worth’s Bass Hall July 21-26). In this play-within-a-play, a troupe of entertainers headed by the Leading Player (Lisa Karlin) tells the tale of Pippin’s (Sam Lips) search for fulfillment and ultimate choice. Winner of four 2013 Tony awards including Best Revival of a Musical and Best Direction (Diane Paulus), this re-imagining of the 1972 Bob Fosse hit brings back original book writer Roger O. Hirson and composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Wicked).
Rather than simply reproduce the original musical, Paulus and team give the show a modern makeover by shifting the context into the world of the circus. Gypsy Snider, co-founder and co-director of Montreal’s Les 7 doigts de la main (which brought the urban circus show Traces to Dallas a few years ago), creates risky but glittering acrobatic stunts that seamlessly fit in with the storytelling. Intricately patterned costumes by Dominique Lemieux display a brilliant palate of colors for the eye to feast on. Choreography by Chet Walker, in the style of Bob Fosse, keeps a classic feel to the show, and if all that isn’t enough to place one in escapist entertainment heaven, Paul Kieve provides dazzling magical illusions as icing on the cake.
It’s that sense of fantasy and enchantment juxtaposed with a fairly deep storyline using historical characters and situations that creates a puzzling yet, in the end, oddly satisfying dissonance. The story uses characters from hundreds of years in the past, with names like Charlemagne (or King Charles, played by John Rubinstein) and references to Visigoths and feudalistic concepts, but none of these is germane to the plot. It maintains a modern-day worldview, and an over-the-top theatricality permeates the costumes and mannerisms of the characters. Historical accuracy is not the point.
This hodgepodge of elements immediately instills a sense that everything is not as it seems, a common theme in some of Fosse’s more popular productions. Illusion masks the reality, and the show gives the audience something to chew on long after the curtain goes down. For example, in the famous “Manson Trio” (in which Walker keeps Fosse’s original choreography), Leading Player and two ensemble members (Borris York and Mathew deGuzman) perform an engaging vaudevillian dance number complete with hats, canes, and signature Fosse moves, while acrobats play out the bloodshed and slaughter of war in the background.
One of the biggest changes in the last 40 years is the shift to a more lighthearted, fun production rather than the dark affair originally envisioned by Fosse, but this new incarnation further reinforces the dangers and power of illusion and distraction. Several key lines and closing events leave a chilling reminder that the themes explored are not confined to the world of the theater but have real-life implications.
The production is not only put together exceptionally well, but technical and performance execution make this show stand head-and-shoulders above others in the field, and it’s difficult to narrow down a few elements that make it fantastic. The hand-to-hand, silk, pole, and hoop acrobatics are simply incredible, and the versatility of the performers is quite impressive. The most surprising act, however, comes from Adrienne Barbeau, playing Pippin’s grandmother Berthe. Not only is she charming on stage, but she looks just as stunning in corseted acrobat costumes as the younger ladies and even performs a couple of small stunts herself.
While Sasha Allen is top-billed as Leading Player, Karlin stepped into the role for opening night and owned the stage like she’s been playing the part for years. She’s aggressive, seductive, and totally believable as the one who could be your best friend one second and your worst enemy the next.
Lips provides some awesome comedic moments as the awkward and hesitant lead, especially when he tries to dance and even succeeds one time. Line delivery and physical character portrayal, though, are his main strengths, as vocals tend to be a bit thin at times. Kristine Reese as Pippin’s love interest Catherine an exquisite match for him.
The original Broadway Pippin, Rubinstein, poetically returns as King Charles and infuses an extraordinary amount of quirky wisdom into the character. Stephen Sayegh as Catherine’s son Theo delivers some remarkable vocals, and Sabrina Harper is ravishing in her portrayal of Pippin’s stepmother Fastrada.
Unlike many other musicals, I would not give this the “family-friendly” stamp of approval, although there were a decent amount of children in the audience on opening night. The DSM website gives a content warning and recommends this for ages 12 and up due to the mature themes, violence, and sexual situations.
Pippin makes for an electrifying and thought-provoking evening, a combination that’s increasingly rare in musical theater these days.