Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz is drawn to storytelling. His first show, Godspell, took parables from the New Testament and enlivened them with happy, emotional melodies. His biggest hit, Wicked, translated the familiar Wizard of Oz story by L. Frank Baum into a prequel, behind-the-scenes look at Elphaba, the Wicked Witch who’s less of a villain that misunderstood. So it’s no big surprise that another of his works, Pippin (created in 1972, just a year after Godspell’s success) was a kind of fairytale, too.
Rooted in a real historical person, it’s the story of Pippin. He was the son of King Charlemagne, whose conquests created the Holy Roman Empire in the 9th century. But there’s a lot more entertainment and soul-searching than history in Schwartz’s rendition. And in the touring production making a one-week stop at the Aronoff Center (it’s onstage through Sunday, Oct. 18) spectacle gets the lion’s share of the story, although there’s clearly a message, especially at the show’s somber conclusion.
This production is a touring version of the 2013 revival that won several Tony Awards, and it’s got a lot to watch that will dazzle and amaze. First and foremost, it uses circus-styled acrobatics à la Cirque du Soleil as well as high-end illusions well beyond anything I’ve seen in more traditional productions of this or any musical. The cast uses seven skilled circus performers trained by 7 Fingers, a Cirque-like troupe based in Montreal, in addition to another seven Broadway-experienced musical theater types who had to learn enough to be part of this extremely physical production.
One of the latter had a bit of an edge. Playing Charlemagne is actor John Rubinstein (known for numerous stage, film and television roles); in fact, back in 1972 he originated the role of Pippin. Now at 68, he’s still romping and spunky, bringing a comic edge to the stern ruler. He’s great fun to watch. As is another Baby Boomer who’s a veteran stage and screen performer, Priscilla Lopez (who’s 67), who plays Pippin’s grandmother Berthe. It’s a showy role (it won a Tony award for actress Andrea Martin in the recent revival); she’s featured in the number “No Time at All,” about living life to the fullest — much of which she performs while swinging on a trapeze with a serious acrobat, holding her own in several spectacular moves.
Movement is what this production of Pippin is all about, especially the “Leading Player,” the show’s guide and narrator, danced and sung — and acrobatically performed — by Gabrielle McClinton, who also performed in this role in the recent revival on Broadway. She opens the show, peering through a tent opening and inviting the audience to join her for Pippin’s tale of personal searching. With choreography rooted in the work of Bob Fosse (who created iconic dance moves for the original production), she sinuously leads a cast of accomplished performers as they tell the story with spectacular, often breathtaking, physicality.
Also noteworthy is Brian Flores as the title character, a young man on a circuitous and often disappointing path to doing something “Extraordinary.” He handles the emotional journey effectively, and he proves he’s the equal of the circus performers with several daring moves. Equally eye-catching are Sabrina Harper as Charlemagne’s trophy wife (her song “Spread a Little Sunshine” is an cavalcade of choreographic innuendo), and Bradley Benjamin as the sweet widow Catherine, who eventually convinces Pippin that happiness is more important that fame, conquest or fortune.
That revelation leads to the show’s bare-bones conclusion as the magic evaporates. But Catherine’s young son Theo (Jake Berman) reminds us that another generation might still be drawn to the same tempting path that drew Pippin.
Musically and physically Pippin is one of the best touring shows I’ve seen in ages. It’s only at the Aronoff for one week, so getting tickets now is advised.
PIPPIN, presented by Broadway in Cincinnati, continues through Oct. 18.