Some shows come at you fresh out of the box, and you get goose bumps because you know you're experiencing something new. Other shows feel very familiar, employing tried and true techniques, and there's a different sort of pleasure in that.
Then, every so often, there's a show that does both. There are echoes upon echoes of the past in this revival of Pippin, now at Playhouse Square. But thanks to the skills of director Diane Paulus and her talented team, the finished product is a sometimes frenetic, always stupendously glorious extravaganza that definitely has that new car aroma.
The original Pippin ran for five years on Broadway starting in 1972, directed and choreographed by the hat-and-cane master of movement Bob Fosse. And many of Fosse's sensual, distinctive dance moves are replicated in Chet Walker's choreography. But there are many more connections to the past in this show.
Augmented powerfully by the music and lyrics of Stephen Schwartz, the rather thin book by Roger O. Hirson takes on considerably more significance than it otherwise might have. It all begins with a troupe of performers who set out to tell the audience a quasi-historical story of Pippin, a young man searching for the meaning of (his) life in the Middle Ages.
In this revival, that acting troupe has morphed into a circus, and all the action takes place under scenic designer Scott Pask's star-studded tent-like set. As the performers sing the opening number, "Magic To Do," a rough canvas material falls away and we're plunged headlong into an Ed Sullivan wet dream: colorful acrobats, jugglers, dancers and more jazz hands than you've ever seen in one place — all exploding at once.
Soon, Pippin interacts with his father, the tyrant King Charles, or Charlemagne. In another blast from the past, Charles is played with gusto by John Rubenstein, who played young Pippin in the original production 42 years ago. Charles is accompanied by Pippin's stepmother, the scheming Fastrada (Molly Tynes) and her son Lewis (Callan Bergmann), a dullard who is always spoiling for a fight. Fastrada is intent on having Lewis become king, even if it means getting rid of her bloodthirsty hubby and confused Pip,
The story is narrated by the Leading Player, a role played by Ben Vereen in the long-ago productions. Now that part has undergone a trendy gender change, and Sasha Allen steamily delivers her wry, often chilly instructions to Pippin in songs such as "Glory," a tribute to man's infatuation with war, killing and maiming ("Blood is red as sunset/Blood is warmer than wine").
As the story progresses, Pippin is introduced to the pleasures of the flesh, with instruction provided by none other than his grammy Berthe ("You have to stop thinking and live in the moment"). This may be one of the best one-song roles in any musical, and Priscilla Lopez milks it dry as she strips down to a leotard and she and a muscular trapeze artist get it on in mid-air during the showstopper, "No Time at All." (It even has a bouncing ball sing-along for the audience to join in on the chorus.) This one song is worth the price of admission all by itself, but there is so much more.
Alas, grandma's sex tips don't lead to ultimate fulfillment, so Pippin lashes out, committing patricide so he can take over the kingdom and fix everything. Unfortunately, the idealistic Pippin learns that he can't really change the world, due to the law of unintended consequences, so he implores the Leading Player to bring daddy back to life. And of course, this being only a play within a play, that request is granted.
Changing tracks in Act 2, Pippin is exposed to the ordinary life of average people, and there are some comical moments as the ensemble acts out various farm animals, including a particularly evocative rooster. And when Pippin meets the widow Catherine and her young son, things really change for him
In the lead role of Pippin, Sam Lips sings pleasantly but never really registers an interesting personality. There's a similar difficulty with Catherine (Kristine Reese). Pippin is attracted to her, but Lips and Reese never create much chemistry, even with the help of the sappy, unambiguously titled "Love Song" ("How can you define a look or a touch?/How can you weigh a feeling?"). Anyhow, after some last-minute swerves, a happy ending ensues.
But hey, this production isn't about the story, or even about the acting. It's all about the infectious score and the three-ring razzle-dazzle. And you're not likely to get your razzle dazzled any better than in this song-circus on steroids.