For about 80 percent of the time you’ll spend watching Pippin at the National Theatre, the concept of setting this 1970s musical in a circus completely and totally works, providing spectacle and suspense under the Big Top. But that other 20 percent is problematic. This isn’t a novel observation—-people having been saying it since the 2013 revival, directed by Diane Paulus, opened on Broadway. What is worth noting, with regret, is that wonderful as the acrobatics and illusions in Pippin are, the less-successful musical numbers failed worse in D.C. given some gut-wrenching events in the news.
Religious war! So fun to see spoofed the week the Taliban gunned down 100 children at a primary school. And bondage brothels! Potentially amusing, as long you’re sure the women weren’t drugged by Bill Cosby and choked by Jian Ghomeshi.
Poor Pippin, son of Charlemagne. His musical is so politically tricky. But he really is a charismatic and likable medieval fellow who just wants to find his corner of the theatrical sky, so go hoping to have a qualified good time. Given the uniqueness of this production, many performers from the roster of the Broadway show (which is set to close Jan. 4), have opted to hit the road. This is no second-string tour, and that’s a great reason to see the show. Kyle Dean Massey continues his run as Pippin, who at show’s opening has just returned to the Holy Roman Empire after earning a university degree. Massey’s voice sounds full, clear and sincere as he belts Broadway’s best song ever about not knowing what the hell to do with your life and moving back in with your parents.
Also touring: John Rubinstein, who’s been playing the irascible Charlemagne lately, but much, much earlier in his career starred as the original Pippin when the show tried out at the Kennedy Center back in 1972. Many of the ensemble members are Broadway vets as well, and many have connections to Canada’s National Circus School, which stands ready to resupply Paulus with hand-balancers and strongmen and trapeze artists.
One new high-flyer is Lucie Arnaz, who plays Berthe, Pippin’s daredevil grandma in exile. On opening night, all the daughter of Lucy and Desi had to do was walk onstage in a bustier to garner applause, but she was pretty darn amazing leading the audience through singalong choruses of “No Time at All” and telling us all to shut up so she could sing verses while hanging upside down.
The illusions (credited to Paul Kieve) are just as cool as the physical tricks and include levitating coffins and talking dismembered heads. The fight scenes (“War is a Science,” “Glory”) feature Pippin and his Charlemagne’s forces slaughtering the Visigoths. To take advantage of the acrobatics, the combat isn’t portrayed as comedy. Robert O. Hirson and Stephen Schwartz did have Vietnam as a backdrop when they wrote the show, but the anti-communist campaigns must have seem less connected to the Crusades than present-day conflicts. Thankfully, Pippin soon decides the soldier’s life is not for him, so he heads out to the countryside to sow his wild oats.
Two problems here: So many of the lyrics reference the traditional pastoral setting of Pippin (soaring eagles, babbling brooks, etc.) and the brothel, which features ladies who look to be wearing faux-pasties and not much more (actually, red, black, and flesh-toned unitards adorned with devil and scorpion motifs.) When a cage is rolled onstage, the contortionists inside look like they’re in pain, not like they’re ready for a sexy good time.
Once again, Pippin moves on in his search to find meaning in life. His quest is narrated by Sasha Allen, the leading player, who struts in top hats and spandex and injects conflicts, particularly towards the show’s poignant end, when the circus tent and the fourth wall come down. The back wall of the National is laid bare, with its painted-on homages to Cats, West Story, Sweet Charity et al. While Pippin is not the perfect musical, it certainly belongs in the canon. I guess it might as well have flame-throwing strongmen and human cannonballs, too.
At the National Theatre through Jan. 4
Photo by Terry Shapiro