Theater review: ‘Pippin’ at the Dr. Phillips Center

“Join us,” plead the opening lyrics of Steven Schwartz’s Pippin, which opened last night at the Dr. Phillips Center (now through April 26), and from the striking first image of silhouetted jazz hands, we’re sorely tempted to run away and join this sumptuous circus. Director Diane Paulus reimagined the 1972 show for its Tony-winning 2013 Broadway revival as a fusion between vintage Bob Fosse (whose distinctive style is woven throughout Chet Walker’s choreography) and Cirque-style acrobatics (created by Gypsy Snider, co-founder of “7 Fingers”). With Scott Pask’s bigtop set and Dominique Lemieux’s colorful retro-future costumes setting the scene, the simple story of Pippin (Sam Lips) — the Candide-like son of Emperor Charlemagne (John Rubinstein) — and his allegorical quest for existential purpose is repurposed as a modern-day miracle pageant with Las Vegas production values.

I found the high-flying aesthetic intoxicating (if Phantasmagoria and Varietease merged with a multimillion-dollar budget, this is what it might look like), and at moments the design conceit amplifies the emotional beats of Schwartz’s songs and Roger Hirson’s book with beautiful results. Film star Adrienne Barbeau’s brief turn as Pippin’s gregarious grandma, Berthe, during which she sings while swinging upside down from a trapeze, visualizes the character’s vitality in heart-stopping fashion. Rubinstein, who created the title role in Pippin’s original production, puts a loopy Monty Python spin on his regal role, landing his punchlines with the able aid of Sabrina Harper as Pippin’s oversexed stepmom and Callan Bergmann as his overmuscled half-brother.

With such a feast of flame jugglers, pole climbers and magic tricks to marvel at, it seems a bit mean-spirited to mention a couple of flaws in this otherwise fine production: mainly, the two leads. Sasha Allen has the sassy presence and powerful pipes to pull off the Leading Player – a role iconically originated by Ben Vereen – but poor enunciation (a problem also plaguing several other performers) makes a muddle of her important exposition, and she rarely taps into the menace that should lurk beneath her smile. Sam Lips is initially appealingly ordinary in a boy-band-next-door way, but his pitchy upper register and Glee-worthy blandness beget zero chemistry with Catherine (Kristine Reese, funny and in fine voice), so their interminable “ordinary life” interlude ends up dragging Act 2 to a grinding halt.

The final moments of the show, when the artifice of the carnival is literally exposed, redeem the production with unexpectedly moving theatricality. I only wish there were a bit more of that darkness throughout, along with a few more memorable songs (the hummable hits are all in the opener) to make the whole live up to the promise of the beginning. But even if this Pippin isn’t quite perfect, at least you can attend this circus spectacular without walking past PETA protesters.

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