‘Pippin’ at Hippodrome Theatre at The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center

Pippin is one glorious flashback to a time when musicals were happenings, Broadway casts called themselves “tribes,” and playwrights broke through the fourth wall to make profound statements on life, war and politics.

John Rubenstein (Charlemagne) and Sabrina Harper (Fastrada). Photo by Terry Shapiro.
John Rubinstein (Charlemagne) and Sabrina Harper (Fastrada). Photo by Terry Shapiro.

You know, like 1972.

Pippin and its creators, notably Stephen Schwartz and Bob Fosse, won a wagon full of Tonys back then. And the big 2013 revival that is now making a tour stop at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre racked up a similar Tonys haul.

My guess is that the vote for Best Revival of a Musical was not even close.

This is one dynamite re-invention of a theatrical milestone—and the national touring show cuts no corners. However high your expectations of finally getting another look at Pippin these four decades later, this fabulous all-star production will not disappoint.

That’s not to say that the bucking book by Roger O. Hirson has been fully tamed. It still bears the scars of a difficult delivery. But Director Diane Paulus sets the historical fable under a magical big top, passing it off as the delirious confection of a hard-working traveling circus. Conceptually it is a leap, but it does go a long way toward finessing any structural flaws.

A direct link with the 1972 production is established right from the start by the return of original star John Rubinstein. Rubinstein was stick-figure thin when he created the role of young Pippin on Broadway. Now he is back as the senior member of the traveling players and portraying Pippin’s father, the affable tyrant King Charles.

Rubinstein is still trim and agile, pulling off a series of magic acts, transformations, lively leaps and comic turns all with impeccable timing. He even brings some new surprises to his delightful tongue-twisting solo, “War Is a Science.” The decades have lowered his voice and raised his hairline, but Rubinstein proves he’s still a star.

The role of Pippin is in good keeping with handsome, light-hearted leading man Sam Lips. He gets many chuckles in the early scenes, acting like a frisky pup before marching off to battle in a pointed tin helmet that intentionally makes him look like Pinocchio. Later he wins respect with a jazzed-up version of “Corner of the Sky” and sweet and sensitive renditions of “Morning Glow” and “Love Song.”

Sam Lips as Pippin and Company in the National Touring Production of 'Pippin.' Photo by Martha Rial.
Sam Lips as Pippin and Company in the National Touring Production of ‘Pippin.’ Photo by Martha Rial.

Also in the “something new” credits for this production is powerhouse Sasha Allen in the old Ben Vereen role as Leading Player. She has a socko blues delivery that brings out something far edgier in the opening number “Magic To Do” and wraps some rapture around the bones of “Glory.” In “On the Right Track,” Allen’s dancing emerges as just as fully accomplished and confident as her singing.

Perhaps the show’s most delightful surprise is in the “something old” category—though that term does a disservice to the poise and grace of film and TV actress Adrienne Barbeau. Yes, Maude’s daughter is now ripe for the role of Pippin’s grandmother, originally played by Irene Ryan of The Beverly Hillbillies.

 Adrienne Barbeau as Berthe. Photo by Sara Hanna Photography .

Adrienne Barbeau as Berthe. Photo by Sara Hanna Photography .

Barbeau delivers the show’s anthem of grandmotherly advice to the young, “No Time At All,” like a warm and spry old-timer, even engaging us in an audience sing-along. Then she doffs her matron’s dress to reveal an eye-popping figure and hops aboard a trapeze bar for a seductive spin twenty feet above the stage with a buff, half-naked aerialist.

In short, Barbeau accomplishes the evening’s best magic without resorting to any illusions at all.

The majority of the death-defying stunts are left in the capable hands, feet and muscles of the Montreal-based circus troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main, led by Gypsy Snider. They pull off some feats of anti-gravity I did not imagine possible.

Excellent support throughout is given by Sabrina Harper as Fastrada, who adds a dynamic solo delivery to “Spread a Little Sunshine,” and Kristine Reese, whose Catherine starts out as a ticklish comedienne then morphs into a most touchingly credible ingénue with her ballads “Love Song” and “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man.”

Also coming on strong are Erik Altemus as Lewis, the comically vain brother of Pippin, and young Stephen Sayegh as Theo (on the night I attended).

The live pit orchestra led by Ryan Cantwell and the choreography “in the style of Bob Fosse” by Chet Walker are always colorful and on beat. Technical credits, scenic design and costumes also add to the professional look and feel of a real Broadway sensation.

Somewhere in Act II the fable about Pippin’s search for purpose in life becomes a soapbox for Bob Fosse’s ambivalence toward show business, laying on the hoopla as if to persuade us that hoopla is a lot of hooey. All he manages to do is convince us that he was one hell of a showman.

Sasha Allen (Leading Player) and the cast of the National Tour of 'Pippin.' Photo by Terry Shapiro.
Sasha Allen (Leading Player) and the cast of the National Tour of ‘Pippin.’ Photo by Terry Shapiro.

On opening night of this too-short run, the audience was clearly engaged and delighted. I predict this will remain the liveliest, most entertaining Pippin to come skippin’ down the pike for many decades to come.

Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

Pippin plays through June 28, 2015 at the Hippodrome Theatre at The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 North Eutaw Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call (800) 982-ARTS, or purchase them online.

Broadway Royalty Returns to Broadway: A Chat with John Rubinstein on Joining the Cast of ‘Pippin by Teresa McCormick Ertel.

A Chat with Pippin’s Leading Player-Sasha Allen by Joel Markowitz.

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  1. John, an excellent review as always. :-) I saw it in NYC last year shortly before it closed there. Unfortunately, it had run out of stream by then on Broadway; it was disappointing. Glad to see that the touring company production has life in it. :-)

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