Review: A masterful ‘Pippin’ showcases Paulus’ bold vision

Charles (John Rubinstein) and Pippin (Matthew James Thomas) converse in "Pippin," playing through Oct. 19th at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco. (Photo by Terry Shapiro)

Charles (John Rubinstein) and Pippin (Matthew James Thomas) converse in “Pippin,” playing through Oct. 19th at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco. (Photo by Terry Shapiro)

The story of “Pippin” is one that really resonates with the common folk. After all, Pippin is a pretty common man. Like many of his ilk, he searches for an extraordinary life, one of adventure and devoid of banality. And as he searches for that life, he makes beautiful discoveries along the way, with many of those discoveries lying within him.

The grand Broadway revival of “Pippin,” which nabbed four Tony Awards in 2013, pitches its big top tent at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco until Oct. 19th. The show’s director, Diane Paulus, continues her reputation as one of the hottest and most innovative directors on Broadway, reinventing popular classics with freshness and a joie de vivre that have captured a new generation of Broadway theatregoers.

Paulus’ revival of “Hair,” blends the beauty of spectacle with the show’s rhythmic and poignant score. And her production of “Porgy and Bess” was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen in New York, a masterful turn for legends Norm Lewis and the great Audra McDonald in the title roles.

In the ubiquitous “Pippin,” first shared with audiences in 1972, the young man looking for adventure finds a bevy of circus performers, led beautifully by the Brechtian storyteller named Leading Player, portrayed with oodles of stage presence by Sasha Allen (In a role originated by another legend, Ben Vereen). Leading Player masterfully controls the environment, pushing the story forward, inviting the audience to join the performers in this powerful story. Allen also does plenty to sharpen the precise choreography in the spirit of Bob Fosse, she and other dancers finding each sharp hit, turn and touch that have become synonymous with the famed choreographer and his vision of poetry in motion. Choreographer Chet Walker moves his subjects fluidly throughout the space.

Sasha Allen is sharp as Leading Player in "Pippin" (Photo by Terry Shapiro)

Sasha Allen is sharp as Leading Player in “Pippin” (Photo by Terry Shapiro)

Matthew James Thomas plays Pippin with a youthful and captivating flair. This is a role Thomas knows well, having played Pippin in Paulus’ revival from the start.

His Pippin is understated, giving the impression that he is a mere mortal amongst the talented ensemble of circus performers. Yet he certainly saves his chops for some very opportune moments, nailing his most beautiful songs with aplomb.

Other moments with other characters were loaded with charm. In a bit of cool theatre history, John Rubinstein, who originated the title role in 1972, is back with the show playing King Charles, Pippin’s cutthroat yet bubbly father. His Charles is warm and charming, one who accepts Pippin’s Macbeth-like actions as necessary for his continued journey into becoming his own man.

Lucie Arnaz, who is in the role until her final performance on Oct. 5th, is as delicious and joyful as can be, showcasing a pretty awesome athleticism and unconditional trust with her acrobatic partners she worked directly with. She also led the audience in the show’s warmest moment, because really, who doesn’t love a good sing along complete with a bouncing ball to follow the lyrics.

A lovely and conniving Fastrada is played wonderfully by Sabrina Harper, and Kristine Reese’s turn as Pippin’s love interest Catherine certainly has lots of range, from unsure sweetheart to convincing strong woman. While Pippin certainly does crave a life of domesticity with Catherine and her son Theo (played on this night by effectively snivelish Zachary Mackiewicz), he certainly falls in love with love, enjoying the simplicity and the inner peace that enters his soul.

Pippin (Thomas) finds his love song and sings it to Catherine (Kristina Reese) (Photo by Terry Shapiro)

Pippin (Thomas) finds his love song and sings it to Catherine (Kristina Reese) (Photo by Terry Shapiro)

Pippin certainly is more related to Schwartz work on “Godspell” than it does to “Wicked.” Those delicious little Brechtian touches, which Allen nails, especially when it comes to her banter with Catherine, certainly feels as if Paulus had a blast finding the newness of a script now in its 42nd year in existence.

Stories like “Pippin” are so popular because we all have been Pippin. Who hasn’t craved adventure and freshness in their lives that Pippin desires so passionately? But sometimes, what you already have might be thing you spend so much time looking for.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

SHNSF presents “Pippin”
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by Roger O. Hirson
The Word: Another production that showcases the magic of Paulus’ vision.
Stars: 5 out of 5
Through Oct. 19th
The Golden Gate Theatre
1 Taylor Street, San Francisco, CA
Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes with one intermission
Tickets range from $45 – $210
For tickets, call (888) 746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com

One thought on “Review: A masterful ‘Pippin’ showcases Paulus’ bold vision

  1. Pingback: Life Lessons from Pippin | The Ugly Bug Ball

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