Chicago Theatre Review
Magic to Do
There is a quiet moment near the beginning of Stephen Schwartz’s historically-based musical during which Charlemagne advises his son upon his University homecoming that “Home is where the heart is.” Pippin won’t understand the implications of this sagely advice until the play’s unconventional finale. In his quest for meaning, Pippin tries his hand at war, religion, hedonism and rebellion before finding love with a young widow, while also helping manage her estate and raise her young son. Pippin finally comes to understand his father’s wisdom that, in order to achieve fulfillment and freedom, he simply needs to love and be loved. As the show nears its conclusion Pippin finally sings, “If I’m never tied to anything, I’ll never be free.” It’s this young man’s often humorous personal journey, set to an infectious pop/rock score, filled with image-laden lyrics and performed by a dazzlingly multitalented cast, that captures us. While entertaining with spectacle, this musical also offers many poignant, intimate moments that teach and motivate, setting this once under-appreciated 1973 show above others. In its limited, two-week visit to Chicago, audiences can revel in this re-imagined, updated 2013 Broadway version that earned four Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical.
Visionary Director Diane Paulus, a multi-nominated and winner of Tony Awards for this revival, “The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess” and “Hair,” worked closely with Circus Creationist Gypsy Snider, Choreographer Chet Walker (Tony winner for Broadway’s “Fosse”) and the show’s original Composer/Lyricist Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked,” “Godspell”) to revisit this beautiful musical for 21st century audiences. Originally conceived as a show presented by a troupe of traveling players, Ms. Paulus took that idea and ran with it. She and Schwartz enhanced the circus element, turning the show into a glittery, existential, Cirque du Soleil-inspired musical parable. A couple songs or verses have been cut or altered and orchestrations have been reworked. Walker pays homage to Bob Fosse’s unique, original choreography, while creating original dance moves that seamlessly meld with Snider’s acrobatic stunts and high wire feats of imagination. Paul Kieve has created an array of illusions that make the show extra magical. Performed inside a huge circus tent, outfitted with trapeze swings, floor-to-ceiling dance poles, balancing platforms and plush draperies, Scott Pask’s scenic design both transports audiences to the big top, while meeting the demands of these athletic performers. Dominique Lemieux brings her experience designing for Cirque du Soleil and the ballet to create an array of stunning, colorful, form-fitting costumes that also keep the flavor of Charlemagne’s court. All of this pageantry is brilliantly illuminated by Kenneth Posner’s superb lighting design.
The ensemble cast is, indeed, “Extraordinary,” with an emphasis on the “Extra.” Sasha Allen is an attractive, sexy Leading Player, with the felicitous feistiness necessary to keep the proceedings “On the Right Track.” Scrappy, sassy and full of catlike moves and devilish allure, Ms. Allen drives this production, ushering Pippin through his journey of self-discovery, while promising her audience an unforgettably spectacular finale. Ms. Allen, a finalist on NBC’s “The Voice,” takes the reins and makes the role all her own. Brava to her for such gumption. The actress sells her songs with a resonant vocal instrument that absolutely engulfs the Cadillac Palace. The problem is, in her runs and musical phrasing, Ms. Allen often garbles many of the lyrics. What works so well with jazz and pop seems out of place and indulgent in Stephen Schwartz’s compositions. Ms. Allen performs over, under and all around the melody, often only singing the vowels and leaving the consonants anyone’s guess. Unfortunately, for patrons unfamiliar with this lovely score, much of Ms. Allen’s vocals will be a mystery, although her musicality is superior.
The good-looking, boy-next-door actor Sam Lips plays the title role with a dramatic assuredness that builds nicely with each scene. He holds the audience in the palm of his hand with his beautiful, soulful “Corner of the Sky.” Mr. Lips’ rendition of “With You,” a hauntingly gorgeous love song, turns comic as he sensuously frolics with the entire ensemble; and he closes Act I with a moving anthem of hope and determination, “Morning Glow.” Act II opens with he and the Leading Player seeking to find “The Right Track,” during which he demonstrates his dancing skill. He bemoans his mundane duties as head of the estate in “Extraordinary,” and later shares one of the show’s finest ballads with Catherine, the young widow who rescued him. Together with the excellent Kristine Reese, the two sing the exquisite “Love Song,” a beautiful melody that says so much with only a few words. Ms. Reese is truly one of this show’s standouts. She departs the stage with her musical admission, “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man,” a song that hits home with the audience. Like everyone in this cast, Ms. Reese plays both an actor and a character who shapes Pippin’s expedition to enlightenment, but she does so with an honesty peppered with humor and humility, creating an unforgettable Catherine.
The actor who originated the role of Pippin back in 1973, John Rubinstein comes full circle by playing the boy’s father, the powerful king, Charles the Great. Employing a nice balance of command and comedy, Mr. Rubinstein makes this ruler strong and imposing, but a little impish at times, and thus a more endearing character. His challenging patter song, “War is a Science,” sung with the ensemble, is a study in excellent vocal training and articulation. New York actor/singer/dancer Sabrina Harper is lithe and lascivious as the conniving and flirtatious Fastrada, Charles’ beautiful second wife. Playful and feigning innocence, she’ll stop at nothing to see that her son, the brawny, simpleminded Louis (played with athletic and vocal skill by Broadway’s Erik Altemus), will one day assume the throne.
However, the starring role of this production belongs to the lovely Adrienne Barbeau as Pippin’s swinging grandmother, Berthe. Known for her Broadway work, particularly creating the role of Rizzo in the original production of “Grease,” as well as for stellar appearances in film and TV, Ms. Barbeau absolutely steals this show. She’s featured in the eye-popping, electrifying opening, as well as in a few other ensemble numbers; but Ms. Barbeau’s star turn comes in the middle of Act I with her show-stopping, “No Time at All.” Mr. Lips may have the audience in the palm of his hand, but Ms. Barbeau has every theatergoer tightly wrapped in her loving embrace. Flashing a radiant, pixie-like smile, Ms. Barbeau sings the show’s most inspirational song, instructing her grandson (and the audience) to live each day to its fullest. The actress sashays with the ensemble, encouraging the audience to sing along with her, as the words to the chorus are flashed upstage. Then she suddenly sheds her colorful kaftan, revealing a tight-fitting showgirl costume, and mounts a trapeze in the arms of a handsome, young man…all the while singing her heart out. What comes next has to be seen to be believed. It’s not often that an actor receives a standing ovation before the final curtain, but Ms. Barbeau deserves every moment of this tribute to her talent, skill and charisma.
Unfortunately for Chicago, this magnificent production is only in town for two weeks. It deserves a longer run. The “Magic to Do” that opens this infectious, heartwarming production continues throughout and sends audiences out into the warm night realizing that, like themselves, even a prince like Pippin suffers apprehensions about life. Stephen Schwartz understood those qualms were as universal as love and death. He painted a portrait of a young man searching, like every one of us, for his “Corner of the Sky.” Most audience members will know up front where this journey is headed, but joining Pippin on his voyage to enlightenment will bring unbridled joy to theatre patrons looking for their own “Magic to Do.”
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented July 28-August 9 by Broadway in Chicago at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph, Chicago.
Tickets are available at all Broadway in Chicago box offices, at all Ticketmaster locations, by calling the Chicago Ticket Line at 800-775-2000 or by going to www.BroadwayInChicago.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.