‘Pippin’ — Bushnell Production Reflects the Highs and the Lows of the Revival

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Pippin_Gallery_Sasha_Allen_as_Leading_Player_and_castBy Karen Isaacs

 First of all, a disclaimer:  Pippin has never been a favorite show of mine.  Nothing about the production of the Broadway revival now at the Bushnell through Jan. 11 has changed my mind about the show in general.  Similarly, I saw this production on Broadway anddid not agree with the critics who raved.

Yet, there are parts of this touring production that I liked better than the recent revival which has just ended its run.  The problems of the show and the production remain.

Diane Pauus, the director, has conceived the show as equal amounts of circus and musical.  What does that do?

For one, it distracts you from the simplistic early 1970s plot — the typical young man rebels against powerful father,  wants to do something “meaningful” with his life and eventually grows up to the realities that most of us lead rather ordinary lives.  That the young man, Pippin, is the son of Charlemagne, adds a nice little fillip.

Sasha Allen as the Leading Player in "Pippin."
Sasha Allen as the Leading Player in “Pippin.”

Pippin returns to court following his education, and tries to be a soldier (he doesn’t like killing), visits his grandmother, indulges in carnal lust, tries regicide and ruling (harder than it looks), and eventually ends up with a widow and her son.

Even the original Broadway production — which had is ardent admirers — was best known for its Bob Fosse stylized choreography and direction,  the making of Ben Vereen to star and as the first Broadway show to run a TV commercial.

You notice that it wasn’t the book (by Roger O. Hirson) or the music and lyrics (by Stephen Schwartz) that are memorable.  The latter sounds like the soft rock typical of the period with lots of high aspirations.

Lucie Arnaz as Berthe
Lucie Arnaz as Berthe

Paulis has also stressed production over substance.  I’m sure she had some grand ideas about how the circus atmosphere — the acrobats, tumblers, feats of strength — illuminated Pippin’s journey and served as a metaphor for the world.

The antics are often applause inspiring but they also serve to slow the pace of the show down to a crawl.  A show that should run no more than 2 hours 15 minutes or so, now runs close to 2 hours 45 minutes.

The touring company is a talented bunch with some names that will bring a nostalgic feeling to the audience.  And certainly when 60+ year old performers also swing on trapezes and do other stunts, it can warm an audience’s heart.

The leading player — who might be an emcee, a theatrical director or God — is played by Sasha Allen with a little more warmth than Patina Miller brought to the part.  In fact, I found that true of most of the performers.  The characterizations were a little warmer and more likeable.

The biggest applause of the evening went to Lucie Arnaz as Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother.  She certainly does not look like most people’s idea of a grandmother.  She is also blessed with an almost- show-stopping number, “No Time at All” which she really sells.

As Charles, John Rubinstein returns to the show; he was the original Pippin when the show opened on Broadway.  He too brings a joy and warmth to the role of the king who watches with love and concern as his son struggles to grow up.

As Pippin, Kyle Dean Massey has the callow youth down pat and displays an excellent singing voice. Sabrina Harper as the King’s conniving wife, Fastrada, and her equally conniving son, Lewis (Callan Bergmann) are also very good.

Kyle Dean Massey as Pippin
Kyle Dean Massey as Pippin

It is hard to fault any of the company who work hard not only singing and dancing and playing multiple roles including sheep and chickens, but who also juggle, do acrobatics, balance on rotating disks, spin in the air and fly on trapezes.

Overall this is a good approximation of the Broadway production — a little over blown and long but also a little more human.

Once again, the sound system at the Bushnell muddies lyrics. Most of the time it is difficult to know what the performers are singing.

Pippin is at the Bushnell in Hartford through Jan. 11. For tickets contact www.bushnell.org.


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