Diane Paulus is a disguiser extraordinaire.
How else to explain the magic she’s accomplished by helming the high-flying, magical American Repertory Theater production of “Pippin?”
A re-imagined version of the hackneyed, predictable, thin story about a young man looking to do something extraordinary played on Broadway for 709 performances last year. It won four 2013 Tony Awards, including Best Musical Revival.
Theater’s a collaborative art (credit, among others, Dominque Lemiexu’s colorful, appealing costumes, Kenneth Posner’s mood-enhancing lighting and the Montreal-based circus company Les 7 doigts for its circus antiques with a vaudeville flavor). Most of the credit for ART production, decked in Cleveland through Sunday as part of a U.S. tour, must go to Paulus.
The story itself is neither original nor unpredictable, but Paulus has done a masterful job disguising those shortcomings with an original, captivating approach that’s visually enthralling and capable of catapulting us back into high spirits if we’re down.
Heights play a big role in Paulus’ approach, which perfectly fits in with Pippin’s desire to do something extraordinary. In this production, performers execute back flips, work with flaming hula hoops, throw swords, fly on a trapeze,climb 30-foot poles and get launched in the air (at times hanging upside down).
The company, indeed, has “magic to do” and they do so while making it look effortless.
The ingratiating opening number, “Magic to Do” introduces the framework of the production. An acting troupe relates the story of Pippin, a prince and son of the historical King Charlemagne (aka Charles the Great or Charles I), who existed during the Middle Ages.
Pippin isn’t satisfied with just his royalty status. He seeks fulfillment and extraordinary adventures and asks his father if he can fight in battles. Despite his father forbidding him, he does, but the younger man still isn’t satiated. His search for his “Corner of the Sky,” which he sings about longingly in perhaps the show’s most recognizable song, continues.
In Paulus’ vision, that “Corner of the Sky” is right beside him, with acrobats and circus performers doing breathtaking, daring feats — just the kind of extraordinary adventures Pippin is seeking, one what think. The magic is integrated into the story, suggesting, perhaps, that adventure and remarkable opportunities are right in front of us, if we’d only see them.
Composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz’s lyrics “it’s time to start livin,’ time to take a little from this world we’re given...” can make us roll our eyes and complain out loud we’ve heard this before.
But when it’s sung by a grandma imbued with the spirit and spunk of someone who seems 40 years younger and unafraid to perform eyebrow-raising acrobatic maneuvers, we forget the trite advice. Besides, the song composed by Schwartz, known for shows such as “Godspell” and “Wicked,” has an invigorating melody.
Grandma Berthe (a feisty, vivacious, nimble Priscilla Lopez) encourages audience members to sing along, and the melody’s so catchy, one can’t help but doing so. At the performance I attended, a large crowd didn’t hesitate to get into the act.
There’s also a scene during which Pippin supposes the secret to enjoying life is basking in the simple, ordinary things. We’ve heard this in Thornton Wilder’s masterpiece “Our Town” but we can forgive the repetitiveness, because you never know what surprise these performers have in store for us next.
We can also look past, and even enjoy through our suspension of disbelief, the anachronistic elements of the show, with some in modern dress and others attired as though living in the Middle Ages.
There’s also humor — at one point, Granmda Berthe insists to Pippin she looks terrible, despite his compliment that she looks wonderful.
“Fine grandma, you look terrible,” he says.
“Is that anyway to talk to your grandma?” she admonishes.
The choreography by Chet Walker is in the style of the late, great Bob Fosse, who helmed the original smash 1972 Broadway production, which received mixed reviews. The moves are sexy and energetic, executed admirably by cast members.
Many cast members have booming, expressive singing voices, particularly a fresh-faced Sam Lips as Pippin, who brings charm and an unbridled energy, desire and restlessness to Pippin during his search for his “Corner of the Sky.” Lips’ radiant smile and arms spread out wide suggest a graceful and intent bird, spreading his wings, searching for that corner. Lips also convincingly portrays a deflated, exasperated and even depressed Pippin when his search comes up empty.
John Rubinstein’s King Charles suggests a scatterbrained man who’s growing senile but is holding tight onto his reign, confused but commanding and demanding. But Rubinstein makes it clear that, despite his tough love, he’s a loving father.
A young widow named Catherine (a bubbly, loving Kristine Reese) also cares about the down-on-his luck Pippin. She and her impulsive, immature but ultimately likable young son Theo (played ably by Lucas Schultz in the production I saw) try to form a family with him.
Not all are on Pippin’s side. Molly Tynes, as Pippins conniving stepmother, is all doting on her manly but less than bright son Lewis (a self-loving, manly, muscular Callan Bergmann) and connives slyly and convincingly against Pippin succeeding his father.
Even the Leading Player, head of the troupe telling us Pippin’s story, isn’t always on Pippin’s side. She’s played deftly by Sasha Allen with charisma, a dramatic flair and a commanding, no-nonsense presence.
In his mixed 1972 review, New York Times Critic Clive Barnes praised Fosse for “one of the best musical stagings to be seen on Broadway in years.”
Diane Paulus may have done him one better.
IF YOU GO:
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today through Friday and 6:30 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Connor Palace Theatre, downtown Cleveland, PlayhouseSquare
HOW MUCH: Tickets range from $30 to $115.
Call (866) 546-1353 or visit www.playhousesquare.org.