Bridget McCarthy ‘17/ Emertainment Monthly Co-Executive Stage Editor
In the 1950s/1960s choreographer Bob Fosse had his signature on musical theatre classics such as The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. His unmistakable stylistic dancing was the stamp for every quintessential musical comedy, complete with shtick and showmanship.
Fosse would not stray from musical comedy until the Broadway debut of Pippin in 1972. Although on surface-level the show had the same Fosse-pizazz, shrouded under the familiar display was the title-characters’ existential crisis. Pippin’s search for fulfillment in a superficial environment was similar to Fosse’s own journey in his direction of the production. The constant clash between colorful Broadway-extravagance and darker, more meaningful themes such as sex, depression and suicide highlights the hypocrisy of show business.
Director Diane Paulus took this contrast to new heights for the revival at American Repertory Theater. Paulus increased the drama with a circus aspect, complete with people swinging from trapezes, contortion artists and balancing acts. Audience members bite their nails and awe over the tricks, but still, as with Fosse’s original, the real meaning lies behind the grandeur.
Paulus’ revival brought the circus to the Boston Opera House Wednesday February 3. The music is Stephen Schwartz’s first score, before there was Godspell or Wicked. The book by Roger O. Hirson takes audience members along an outwardly kitschy trek with the son of King Charlemagne, Pippin. Pippin desperately tries to find purpose through war, leadership, sex, and love, though nothing seems to be working. His rumination is surrounded by circus people back flipping over exercise balls and swinging from fire poles: your typical hero’s journey.
The circus players manifest the extravaganza of Pippin’s desire to be “extraordinary,” and they are nothing less. Under the creation of Gypsy Snider, their athletic performances turn the show into visual artistry. Leading Player Gabrielle McClinton commands the stage. Her presence alone overpowers the fleet of daredevils surrounding her, and her vocal chords make her even fiercer. New choreography by Chet Walker keeps the necessary Fosse-elements intact, and McClinton executes with precision.
Brian Flores as Pippin is dorky but loveable, with high-notes to backup his gangly frame. By the second act it is clear Flores can play a clumsy but still serious Pippin, commanding silence in darker moments but laughter in lighthearted ones. Sabrina Harper as Fastrada is an impressive triple-threat, and stage veteran Adrienne Barbeau as Berthe, (OBC Rizzo in Grease,) proves you can be 70-years-old, hotter, prettier and more talented than almost everyone in the audience and cast combined. John Rubinstein, the original Pippin on Broadway, is charming and comical as Charles, and adds a poignant real-life reminder of time in a show concerning its longevity.
The lively artifice of the round circus tent designed by Scott Pask isn’t enough to take away from the core darkness of Pippin. In the final scene, McClinton’s Leading Player shows no mercy for “compromisers.” She strips the set and cuts the lighting. Costumes and makeup are wiped away. No magic. The breaking of the fourth-wall is chilling as actors ask the audience to join them in the masquerade. The abrupt switch from the revival’s loud circus spectacle to an empty stage is cutting. Audience members are left with nothing to watch, but leave with a message.