Thursday, October 23, 2014

Review: PIPPIN - Better Than You Can Even Imagine!

Borris York, Sasha Allen and Mathew deGuzman as The Manson Trio
Photos by Terry Shapiro except where noted.

Opening night of PIPPIN at the Pantages was a smashing success, full of incredibly fresh and hilarious performances, fabulous Fosse choreography, magical effects, and some pretty amazing circus acrobatics by Les 7 doigts de la main! Andrea Martin stopped the show and received a standing ovation following her big feature, “No Time At All” and John Rubinstein is hands down the kookiest Charlemagne youve ever seen (with half his marbles left, I think). Believe me, you want to see this show so get your tickets now. 

This dazzling production by Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson won five Tony Awards when it first opened on Broadway in 1972 and another four in 2013 for its spectacular revival directed by Diane Paulus. It deserves every one of them. The great news for LA is what you’ll see at the Pantages is the best possible touring company you could ever hope for full of professional union actors (yes, folks, it makes a difference) and bona-fide circus performers whose artistry is nothing short of breathtaking.

Much of Bob Fosse’s original choreography is incorporated into the production, updated by choreographer Chet Walker to highlight the physical perfection of his dancers. The numbers are full of Fosse’s signature jazz hands and pelvic isolations, sensually executed with singular precision. The Manson Trio is gender-reversed with two men backing up Sasha Allen’s terrifically dark and slithery Leading Player (originally played by Ben Vereen) but stays true to the original’s mechanical moves, with its underlying subtext about the seduction of war and the kind of power a man like Charles Manson has over his followers. The cast doesnt throw body parts in their updated version of Glory, they throw whole bodies, and the liquid lyricism of With You stealthily turns into a ratcheted up sex ballet with women in cages and a twist on the Pippin pump in which the young idealist is lasciviously thrown around the stage.

Sasha Allen and the cast of PIPPIN

The addition of the circus performers tumbling, balancing, flying, and manipulating their bodies creates a whirlwind around Pippin (Matthew James Thomas) that intentionally distracts him from the cost of the world’s enticements. Pippin’s search for meaning is the journey we all go through and the episodic nature of each lesson comes packaged in a big, bright, colorful box of illusion meant to steer him toward a finale designed by the Leading Player, until Pippin exercises his own free will to make a different choice.

Andrea Martin won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother who isn’t nearly ready to be put out to pasture, and you’ll quickly see why. It’s a star turn that steals the show and she is unforgettable as the granny with more than a few surprises up her sleeve.

In fact, it is the reveals in this production that are so stunning. Scenes explode into life in a flash, swirling with color, and changing so quickly that the pacing becomes as unexpected as the bold new elements that have been added to modernize the look and feel of the show. Those elements are the work of Scott Pask (scenic design), Kenneth Posner (lighting design), Dominique Lemieux (costume design), Gypsy Snider (circus creations), Paul Kieve (illusions), Ryan Cantwell (music director) and Jonathan Deans & Garth Helm (sound design). Each one enhances the images, sounds, and moments of the story to ensure that the touring production is a magical experience of monumental proportion. If you have ever wanted to run away to the circus, your childhood dreams will be resurrected before your eyes.

Thomas also recreates his Broadway performance as Pippin for the LA leg of the tour. The handsome youth is loaded with innocent sex appeal – just ask the twenty or so swooning schoolgirls that sat near me during the performance – and he also has a natural comic ability to play an emotion to the limit until you’re laughing out loud at the ridiculousness of his tantrums and frustration with the world. Kristine Reese is Catherine, your average ordinary kind of woman (with a pretty extraordinary voice) who is supposed to show Pippin how mundane the world is but instead causes him to change the way he sees it altogether. Her adorable son Theo (Lucas Schultz at this performance) has a lot to do with his turning point as well.

Sabrina Harper as Fastrada in Spread a Little Sunshine

Pippin’s stepmother Fastrada is a vibrant Sabrina Harper who can best be described as sex on a stick (and I mean that in the most positive way possible). Callan Bergmann’s Lewis is a comically self-absorbed meathead and the featured Players of the ensemble are some of the most talented and hardest working artists to be seen on a Pantages stage ever. The rolla bolla man, the chickens, the pigs, the aerial artists, the acrobat who jumps through hoops, and a Leading Player who can sing while twirling a hula hoop around her aint seen nothing yet.

And yet, within this highly theatrical parable, there are some deadly serious moments that make PIPPIN more than just an entertaining bauble. Theres a message here, however comically punctuated, to remind you that there is darkness below the surface of what is visible at first glance. What you do with that knowledge is up to you. 

Matthew James Thomas. Photo by Joan Marcus

John Rubinstein as Charlemagne and Sabrina Harper as Fastrada

Andrea Martin as Berthe. Photo by Joan Marcus

Sasha Allen as Leading Player

Sasha Allen as Leading Player and the cast of PIPPIN

Sasha Allen and the Cast of PIPPIN
October 21 - November 9, 2014
Pantages Theatre
6233 Hollywood Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90028

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