The spectacular and the personal mesh to perfection in the most extraordinary Pippin you will ever see, and if you don’t believe me, check out the 2013 Best Revival Tony winner during its two-week stop at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center For The Arts.
Director Diane Paulus (who won a Tony for her work) and choreographer Chet Walker (who was nominated) take the show-opening “Magic To Do” quite literally, all the way from Pippin’s awe-inspiring start to its spellbinding finish, filling the stage with more feats of circus artistry—acrobatic, aerial, and abracadabra—than you’ll see anywhere outside Cirque Du Soleil.
At the same time, Paulus and her supremely gifted all-Equity national-touring cast never let us forget that Pippin is at heart the story of one young man’s search for fulfillment, the production anchored by Kyle Dean Massey doing such resonant yet subtly-shaded (and possibly career-best) work that, like this Pippin itself, the triple-threat extraordinaire ’s performance will be a hard act to follow.
Musical theater aficionados, of course, know Pippin as the nearly 2000-performance 1972 Broadway smash that introduced Stephen Schwartz to the world. Songs like “Magic To Do,” “Corner Of The Sky,” “Morning Glow,” and “I Guess I’ll Miss The Man” have entered the pop/Broadway music lexicon even as its title character’s quest to be “Extraordinary” (“When you’re extraordinary, you gotta do extraordinary things”) has taken him, and four-plus decades of audiences, on an extraordinary journey indeed.
Suggested by the life of the eldest son of 8th Century Emperor Charlemagne, Pippin (book by Roger O. Hirson) opens with yet another of the monarch’s homecomings from battle. Young Pippin, longing to prove himself to his father, convinces Charlemagne to let him join in the fight against the hated Visigoths, though it doesn’t take long for our young hero to discover the truth of the proverbial “War is not the answer,” and he soon retreats to the countryside. There, on his grandmother Berthe’s estate, Pippin tries on for size the “Simple Joys” of rustic living—and finds them lacking as well. Sex is the next stop on Pippin’s quest, followed by an attempt to revolutionize society, even if it means bumping off Dad to do it. Despite all these attempts, Pippin still finds his life as unfulfilled and unfulfilling as ever even as Act One draws to a close. Fortunately, Pippin The Musical still has another act up its sleeve.
To tell this story, Schwartz and Hirson took a surreal route that was hardly par for the course on Broadway in the early 1970s, an approach that featured director-choreographer Bob Fosse’s signature turned-in knees, jutting hips, sideways shuffling, and hand-and-shoulder rolls, moves you’d hardly expect from a musical set in medieval times.
Revival choreographer Walker has designed Pippin’s dance sequences (and quite wisely so) “in the style of Bob Fosse,” but even the great Fosse could hardly have imagined the acrobatic/aerial moves of Gypsy Snider’s “circus creation” that has audiences literally gasping at their audacity and perfection of execution.
And speaking of audacity, how about having leggy, legendary Hollywood progeny Lucie Arnaz show off all of the above skills as a dazzlingly high-flying Grandma Berthe whom neither the role’s originator (Beverly Hillbillies Granny Irene Ryan) nor Lucie’s mom Lucille could ever have imagined.
And speaking of role originators, how about the producers’ brilliant decision to have Broadway’s original Pippin, John Rubinstein, on hand—and dynamically so—as Charles.
Add to the aforementioned all-around superb Massey, Arnaz, and Rubinstein the show-stopping brilliance of The Voice’s Sasha Allen as Leading Player, along with fabulous support by sexy Sabrina Harper as Fastrada and luminous Kristine Reese as Catherine, a terrific featured turn by Callan Bergmann as a dim but hunky Lewis, and an angelically-voiced Lucas Schultz alternating with Zachary Mackiewicz as Theo, and you’ve got quite possibly the most extraordinary Pippin principals ever.
Dance standouts (and by dance I mean dance + acrobatics + aerial feats in various combinations) include the incredibly athletic and unbelievably adroit Dmitrious Bistrevsky (Rolla Bolla) and Sascha Bachmann and Fernando Dudka (“With You” hand balancing), along with featured dancers Mathew deGuzman and Borris York (The Manson Trio) and Mirela Golinska Roche and Preston Jamieson (Bolero).
Delightful cameo turns are offered by ensemble members Lisa Karlin (Noble), deGuzman (Peasant), and Alan Kelly (Head), the Broadway-caliber ensemble completed by Players Skyler Adams, Bradley Benjamin, Mark Burrell, Kelsey Jamieson, Mélodie Lamoureux, L.A.’s very own Tory Trowbridge, and Mackenzie Warren—with Trowbridge’s fellow Los Angeles County High School Of The Arts grad Ryan Cantwell serving as musical director/conductor and guaranteeing that the entire triple-threat company’s dance prowess is matched by their vocal expertise.
Scott Pask (scenic design), Dominique Lemieux (costume design), Kenneth Posner (lighting design), Jonathan Deans and Garth Helm (sound design) all received Tony nominations, and justifiably so. This Pippin’s spectacular circus setting is like none ever seen or heard before, nor have Paul Kieve’s eye-popping illusions been seen anywhere outside Las Vegas or a Cirque Du Soleil tour stop.
Mia Walker is assistant director. Bill Schaeffer is company manager and Jasmin Jakobsen assistant company manager. Annelise Castleberry is stage manager and Michael Lanphear assistant stage manager. Mahlon Kruse is production supervisor.
I’ve now seen a grand total of eight Pippins, beginning with the musical’s First National Tour at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion eons ago. I’ve seen it sexy and Chicago-esque. I’ve also seen it done with an Asian hip-hop approach, performed with not one but two Pippins, (one deaf and one hearing), set in a post-Apocalyptic universe, and most recently brought to life in the world of “Steampunk Carnivale.”
That being said, I’ve never seen a Pippin like this one, so much so that I may just have to turn down all future review invites. To quote our young hero, “When you’re extraordinary, you gotta do extraordinary things.” Extraordinary things the Best Revival Tony winner does indeed do, and good luck to anyone in future even trying to come close.
Segerstrom Center For The Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
November 11, 2014
Photos: Terry Shapiro, except Kyle Dean Harris by Joan Marcus