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Theater Review: RBTL presents "Pippin"

 

The touring production of "Pippin" -- the Tony-winning revival of the 1972 Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson musical -- transforms the medieval tale of a wide-eyed dreamer into a wildly entertaining circus spectacular. The production, presented by the Rochester Broadway Theatre League, opened Tuesday night at the Auditorium Theatre and continues through Sunday, January 18.

In its original form, "Pippin" was very much a product of the 1970's: earnest and a little corny, with the period's classic focus on a dreamer searching to find his place in the world. It's a little hokey, though it ultimately earns its sentimental streak. Still, the re-imagining has done wonders for the show. Thanks to the inventive direction of Diane Paulus and a phenomenal cast, the show more than lives up to the promise made in its opening number, proving to audiences that there's plenty of "Magic to Do."

In the musical's show-within-a-show, a troupe of traveling circus performers -- led by the Leading Player (Sasha Allen) -- reenact the story of Pippin (Kyle Dean Massey), the starry-eyed son of King Charlemagne (John Rubinstein). Fresh out of school, Pippin is innocent and naive, yearning to give his life meaning and find his own "Corner of the Sky." His ongoing quest to find a purpose leads him to become a soldier, have a whole lot of meaningless sex, and even try his hand at ruling the kingdom after he becomes convinced his father isn't quite up to the task.

Leaving behind his scheming stepmother Fastrada (Bradley Benjamin, in a deliciously vampy performance) and dim-witted half-brother Lewis (Callan Bergmann), Pippin seeks the counsel of his grandmother Berthe, played by Lucie Arnaz, who brought down the house with her big number, "No Time At All," in which she advises her grandson to get with the living while he's young. Pippin eventually tries out an ordinary life, working on the farm owned by a lonely widow named Catherine (Kristine Reese) with a young son, Theo (portrayed by Lucas Schultz in Tuesday night's performance). It all leaves him with the task of finding happiness when nothing he's experienced has lived up to his expectations.

It's a decent-but-not-great story, and it feels as though Paulus was very much aware of this and realized that the production needed an added draw to capture the attention of modern audiences. Maybe I'm alone in this feeling -- at the conclusion of the first act, the woman seated beside me informed her companion that she'd already cried twice. But the circus milieu seems a perfect solution. By transforming plot points into circus acts (for example, a bloody wartime battle becomes a sequence of death-defying acrobatics), a new layer is uncovered. Instead of cheapening the proceedings, the added bits of side-business actually enhance them. The razzle dazzle is inextricably linked to the story it's telling and serves an actual purpose, and as the story draws to a close, the spectacle (or more accurately, the lack thereof) provides a surprising poignancy.

As Pippin, Massey (reprising the role he played on Broadway) is effortlessly likable even when the character comes across as the poster child for early-adulthood ennui. And he sings well, too. Allen has an appealing smokiness to her powerful pipes, and her brassy presence makes for a strong ringmaster to center the tale. Rubinstein, who originated the title role in the Broadway production, appears to relish playing the father figure here, investing his Charles with a rascally charm. Required to perform juggling and disappearing acts, quick changes, illusions, and levitation, the entire cast perform marvelously: a harder working ensemble, you will never see.

I tend to be hit-or-miss on Stephen Schwartz. His 70's pop score contains a few memorable songs, and even if few of the melodies stuck with me, they work just fine in the context of the show. But above all, the revival is impeccably designed; it's one of the most gorgeous looking shows I've seen come through the Auditorium in quite some time. Chet Walker's Fosse-inspired choreography, Scott Pask's sets, Kenneth Posner's lighting, Dominque Lemieux's costumes (if you're a fan of ogling chorus boys, this show provides ample opportunity), all work together to create a visual feast. Thrilling, magical, fun, and just a little bit kinky, "Pippin" is a delight. There's "Magic to do," indeed.

Editor's Note: This article has been corrected. Bradley Benjamin is currently portraying Fastrada.

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