Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Theater Review: Pippin -- The Bushnell

Sasha Allen and cast. Photo: Terry Shapiro.
Leave Your Cheese to Sour for This Exciting 'Cirque du' Pippin
By Lauren Yarger
“Join us,” sings the Leading Player (Sasha Allen). “Leave your cheese to sour . . . for an hour or two.”

And so you should.

The tour of the 2013 Tony-award winning revival of Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin flies into the Bushnell this week, and it’s definitely worth dropping whatever you’re doing to get over to the box office and see it.

There’s a reason why this production, directed by Diane Paulus with Choreography by Chet Walker in the style of Bob Fosse and Circus themed activity designed by Gypsy Snider of the Montreal-based circus company “Les 7 Doigts de la Main” won four Tonys that year (including one for Paulus): it’s fabulous.

The circus motif, designed by Scott Pask, complete with trapeze, flame throwers and balancing acts is an update from the original vaudeville flavor and works perfectly with magical tricks and colorful costuming (designed by Dominique Lemieux) to tell the story, presented as though a troupe of players is bringing it to life on the stage. Just looking at it and listening to Schwartz’s familiar score, which includes the opening “Magic to Do and a number of other tunes we have been singing ever since this musical burst on to Broadway in 1973.

If that weren’t enough, there are some exciting performances in this production. Kyle Dean Massey (who assumed the title role in the Broadway revival and whose rock-style voice finds it best match in the beautifully executed “Love Song”) plays Prince Pippin, eldest son of Emperor Charlemagne, who knows he has been born to live and extraordinary life, but who can’t figure out exactly how to do that now that he has finished his formal education. What will bring him fulfillment?

Helping him try new experiences is the enigmatic Leading Player who steers him to “Glory”  “On the Right Track”

Broadway’s original Pippin, John Rubenstein, takes a turn here as King Charles, a.k.a. Charlemagne. Rubenstein gives a humorous, electrifying performance as the beleaguered emperor, doing battle with the pope, leading his men into holy battle and dealing with spendthrift, sexpot second wife Fastrada  I saw understudy Bradley Benjamin, in for Sabrina Harper, who understudied the role in the Broadway revival company) and their son, vain, war-loving Lewis (Callan Bergmann), who can’t wait to sit on the throne ahead of Pippin.

He almost gets his chance when Pippin decides that he should become a soldier. When the bloody experiences of “War” leave him still looking for purpose, Pippin turns to other means of satisfaction like sex, religion and politics.

His grandmother, Berthe (a fabulous Lucie Arnaz who stops the show), gives him some advice about living in the moment, which will be gone in “No Time at All.” Eventually he tastes true happiness with a widow, Catherine (an engaging Kristine Reese – the rapport between her and Massey is visible), and her young son and his pet duck when he lives a simple, ordinary life on their farm. Can that truly satisfy a man who knows he is “Extraordinary,” though?

Choreographer Chet Walker pays homage to Bob Fosse’s original moves, especially a sequence made famous in a then-rare television commercial for a Broadway show featuring original Leading Player Ben Vereen and two scantily clad dancers in armor performing Fosse isolations. It propelled sales at the box office – I still remember it. The sequence here has two male chorus members performing with Allen, who was a finalist on the fourth season of TV’s “The Voice.” But who seems stiff in some of the show’s choreography.

Not stiff, and not looking anywhere near Berthe’s 66 years (a grey wig would help), is Arnaz who dazzles the audience with her effervescent stage presence and fit form, revealed in a trapeze number – and a costume designed by Lemieux. Arnaz, the daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, is no newcomer to musical theater, having performed on Broadway in They’re Playing Our Song, Lost in Yonkers and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

This hot production of Pippin -- even the expert lighting by Kenneth Posner deserves a nod -- definitely is the way to warm up as frigid temperatures descend on the region through this weekend. One note, though, if you are planning on bringing the kids – Pippin’s experimentations to find satisfaction take him from “sex presented pastorally”  to debauchery.

Catch the magic (with illusions designed by Paul Kieve) through Jan. 11 at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. Performances are Wednesday, Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 1 and 6:30 pm. Tickets $21-$85:  (860) 987-5900;

Editor's note: the original review posted here did not list Bradley Benjamin in the role of Fastrada, because the show never announced an understudy would be playing the part for Sabrina Harper, who was listed in the program and press releases. Bushnell Communications Manager Paul Marte confirmed that Benjamin played the role and that the company had not provided stuffers for the program or made an announcement at curtain (usual Equity moves), but had put her name on the cast board (never saw the board and wouldn't have known an understudy was included unless it was the name of a star-billed player was missing). I apologize for any confusion.


Kyle Dean Massey said...

Correction: the role of Fastrada was played by understudy Bradley Benjamin

Lauren Yarger said...

Kyle, Thanks for alerting me. I am waiting to hear back from The Bushnell on what happened -- never received notice of an understudy (no note in program or announcement at curtain either.)
-- Lauren

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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