Category Archive for: ‘Woody Weingarten’

Fantasy musical ‘Pippin’ mixes elements, stirs up fun

Woody’s Rating: ★★★★☆

Interlocutor/narrator (Sasha Allen, left) oversees a circus stunt in “Pippin.” Photo by Terry Shapiro.

Matthew James Thomas (right) assumes the title role in “Pippin” while John Rubinstein, who played that part in the original, is now his father. Photo by Terry Shapiro.

Sabrina Harper provides eye candy and a strong voice as Fastrada in “Pippin,” Photo by Terry Shapiro.

“Pippin,” fittingly touted as “Broadway’s high-flying musical,” is a seamless balance of acrobatic circus acts and theatrical extravaganza.

It blends impeccable singing and high-kick dancing with plentiful comedic interludes.

It spotlights droll magical illusions — and a cute dog trick guaranteed to keep your memory bank warm.

If only the show had a linear, cohesive storyline.

Still, the 2 hour, 20 minute fantasy-fairy tale at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco roughly based on historical realities won’t disappoint.

“Pippin 2.0,” my artificial designation because it’s so different from the 1972 original, is precisely what I expected from a touring company of the 2013 Tony winner for best musical revival:

Inventive. Glamorous. Spectacular.

What I couldn’t foresee, however, were the perfectly timed sound effects by percussionist Ken Bergman, who used a tiny 3×5 screen to monitor the stage action so he could sync everything without missing a proverbial beat.

He counted out for me during intermission the 31 instruments he utilized (including a small washboard).

“This is difficult,” he said. “Usually there’s a point where you can relax, but in this show, there’s always something coming up.”

True.

Bergman’s equipment is so expansive he requires a space of his own in the orchestra pit.

The other dozen-plus musicians (mostly locals) need something else: a net — in case plummeting detritus, runaway hoops, oversized balls or errant gymnasts fall onto them.

The curtain for “Pippin” gives the impression of a circus tent. When it first parts, an interlocutor/narrator (Sasha Allen, filling a role similar to Joel Gray’s emcee in “Cabaret”) quickly creates the illusion of a show within a show.

Her words, and a portion of others (including those of the mega-vibrant chorus), sometimes can’t be easily discerned. But that doesn’t matter.

The overall effect is so dazzling it etches a perma-smile on my face.

The plot’s basics?

A king — Charlemagne (played vigorously by John Rubinstein, who’d starred as the title character in the original) — wants his soldiers to unite Europe, at any cost.

His son, Prince Pippin (a charismatic Matthew James Thomas, who showed off his plentiful vocal, dance and gymnastic talents in the same role for the revival), is more concerned with uniting the wobbly parts of his personality.

Although he claims to seek the meaning of life, he’s really searching for the meaning of his life. He repeatedly gripes about being “empty and vacant” — even after a wild intro to sexuality.

Sabrina Harper (likewise from the revival cast) also turns in a top-notch performance, as Fastrada, Pippin’s manipulative stepmom.

But the showstopper is the sole property of Lucie Arnaz,.

The svelte 63-year-old daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz plays a gyrating granny, Berthe, with enough raw energy to light half the spotlights by her oomph quotient alone.

The audience applauded and cheered. Loudly.

I heartily approved of the outburst.

I also appreciated the fact that director Diane Paulus and circus creator Gypsy Snider, who began her career in San Francisco as a child of the Pickle Family Circus, insisted the acrobats/tumblers/trapeze artists learn dancing and the dancers learn gymnastics.

Paulus, who also was brilliant at the helm of “The Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess” and “Hair,” won a Tony for the revival.

Snider, who’d led her Montreal-based 7 Fingers circus company (officially known as Les 7 doigts de la main) to global success, plucked several of her top performers from it for the “Pippin” revival.

So I wasn’t surprised to find I liked this production more than 1972’s — despite Bob Fosse’s direction and choreography.

This version features dances cobbled by Chet Walker, a Fosse protégé who follows his mentor’s style but adds novel turns of his own. His sexually oriented dance, highlighting a simulated ménage a trois, may not ignite the audience’s fire, but almost everything else he conceived does.

What didn’t work for me?

Scenes like one in which dancers do infantile comedic turns as pigs and chickens. Or an über-melodramatic sequence in which the narrator demands the set be shut down.

Moreover, tunes by Stephen Schwartz, famed for “Wicked” and other Big Apple triumphs, failed to make me leave the theater singing or humming..

Or even thinking about them.

Another minor fault is that the second act, which slows considerably, becomes disjointed as it moves toward a finale that tries to determine if Pippin will settle for something other than his dream of “magic shows and miracles.”

But even with these minor fault-lines, the musical is unique.

And fun.

“Pippin” runs at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St. (at Market), San Francisco, through Oct. 19. Night performances Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; matinees Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Tickets: $45 to $210 (subject to change). Information: (888) 746-1799 or shnsf.com.

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