PIPPIN, the Tony Award winning musical, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwarts, opened to an excited audience in San Jose this past Tuesday night. PIPPIN tells the story of a young prince (Pippin, played by Brian Flores), son of Charlemagne (Charles in this updated version) searching for meaning and purpose in life. Never having seen the original PIPPIN (which made it’s Broadway debut over 40 years ago), I went in expecting a Bob Fosse razzle dazzle coming of age story. What I ended up seeing was a mash-up of Fosse, Cirque du Soliel and Rocky Horror.
The show opens with Leading Player popping out from behind the big circus tent, inviting the audience to be entertained for there is much “Magic to Do”. As the curtain rises, the circus comes to life. People are dangling from ropes, cartwheeling around and jumping through hoops bringing a new and updated form of showmanship to this production.
Leading Player serves as the show narrator, director of the circus and inner voice to Pippin as he journeys though his existential crisis in search of life’s meaning and true purpose. While Gabrielle Mc Clinton has the swagger and look to play the role, it is not until later in the second act that she is really able to command the role in a way that shows just how much she is pulling the strings.
The first half of the show takes Pippin back home after he has completed his studies. He comes to his father, Charles looking for guidance on what to do with his life. The egocentric King (brilliantly played by John Rubinstein) is of little help, but allows Pippin to enroll in his army to accompany him into battle to convert all in the land to Christianity. John Rubinstein, no stranger to PIPPIN as he was the original Broadway title character, shines as Charles. His performance of “War is Science” is one of the highlights of the first act.
War leaves Pippin feeling even worse. Leading player encourages him try to get a little action, but sexual escapades also fail to give him the meaning he is searching for. Pippin, deviously persuaded by the circus troupe in his mind, eventually decides to murder his father in attempt to right the wrongs he has committed as the king.
Near the end of the first act, the show once again wows the crowd with the equally endearing and audience engaging performance of “No Time at All”. San Jose Native and Broadway veteran Adrienne Barbeau is fantastic as Berthe. I really hope I have amazing moves like her when I am 70.
Act two opens up with Pippin, the newly crowned king trying to please all the people in the land before finally realizing this new role as king also leaves him unfulfilled. He runs off, completely and utterly defeated, and sure that he will never find meaning in his life. A young widower takes him in and while he is at first reluctant, he falls into the pace of a simple life, working the farm, building a life with Catherine and her son Theo.
I’d like to give a shout out to Boris York who played the Chicken during the “Extraordinary” number. I am not sure how a trained actor feels about being told to play a chicken on stage, but seriously, this guy owned the role of the chicken. Yes, I am calling out the performance of a background chicken. I laughed so hard…and by the second half of the second act, I needed the laugh. So to you chicken, I say keep on clucking.
As expected, Pippin and Catherine fall in love, which should leave Pippin finally happy, but he is insufferably whiny and runs away thinking he can never be satisfied with an ordinary life. He of course ends up back in the arms of Leading Player who assures him that his life will have meaning if he will simply perform one great final act, where he will go out in a burst of flames.
It is here that the show takes a particularly dark turn. As Pippin struggles with the decision whether to go out in a ball of fire, or to be happy with an ordinary life, Leading Player turns up the heat and simultaneously tries to manipulate Pippin through self-doubt, while stripping away the façade of it all. Down come the curtains, off goes the flattering lights, away go the costumes and wigs leaving Pippin, Catherine and Theo bare and alone on the stage. Just as the audience is led to feel relieved with Pippins decision to live his life with Catherine and Theo, the young boy comes running onto the stage, back into the arms of Leading Player. The circus troupe comes back to life as there is another boy trying to find his “Corner of the Sky”.
I still do not know what to make of Pippin. I was entertained. It was inventive and unique and while some of the performances were shaky, others were solid and memorable enough to make the show worth seeing. Maybe it is the analytical side of me, but I can’t stop thinking of the show, but not for the reasons I normally think about a Broadway musical. PIPPIN was a lot of razzle dazzle, but for all the glitz and glam, there is another darker side to this tale.
PIPPIN is playing now through January 10th 2016 at the Center for Performing Arts (255 Almaden Blvd.). Tickets can be purchased via www.ticketmaster.com or by calling 800-982-ARTS (2787)