'Pippin' review: A circus-y show diverts

Orion Griffiths seems to be having a devil

Orion Griffiths seems to be having a devil of a time in "Pippin." (Credit: Joan Marcus)

After an up-and-down season, Broadway officially ended Thursday on a high.

Very, very high. We are under a big top in director Diane Paulus' upbeat, expert and exhausting circus-infused revival of "Pippin," where musclemen and women walk upside down on aerial swings, hang sideways from towering poles, toss their astonishing selves through hoops balanced on other astonishing heads and hover one-legged on ropes with no visible means of support.

And even Andrea Martin, priceless as the exiled royal granny, morphs into a showgirl and does unimaginable contortions on a flying trapeze.

Oh, and through all this, acrobats who can act and actors willing to risk life and limb without so much as a Spider-Man harness manage to pose and land as if dancers in a Bob Fosse jazz-hands musical.

No matter how one feels about Stephen Schwartz's sappy 1972 hit, this production pumps up the facile material with nonstop, fearless brainstorms. These are by Paulus (who braved more sacred icons when she took on "Hair" and "The Gershwins' Porgy & Bess") and "circus creator" Gypsy Snider, founder of Canada's circus troupe Les 7 doigts de la main.

I've always believed that "Pippin" was "Hair" for timid kids and had a depressing message that growing up means settling for less. Still true. But it is hard to recognize the melancholy of Roger O. Hirson's coming-of-age book or the endless repetitions in Schwartz's I've-got-to-be-where-my-spirit-can-run-free score with so many daredevil magic tricks and such a game, engaging cast.

Of course, Fosse worked hard to disguise the weaknesses of the original with commedia dell'arte clowns and erotic razzle-dazzle. Chet Walker, choreographing in the style of his mentor, gets the signature splayed fingers, the isolated hip rolls and the snaky Velma Kelly arms. But the debauchery, even in the orgy scene, is scrubbed wholesome with athleticism.

Patina Miller has a sinewy cheerfulness as the Leading Player forever identified with Ben Vereen. Matthew James Thomas has a lovely floppy sincerity as Pippin, son of Emperor Charlemagne, who wanders through war, sex and politics in quest of an extraordinary life. Terrence Mann makes a dapper, adorably foolish ruler, Charlotte d'Amboise shows how to do Fosse as Pippin's ambitious stepmother and Rachel Bay Jones has an appealing Betty Boop allure as life's ordinary woman.

So this time, when Pippin echoes my gut response to the show with "There has to be something more than this," Paulus diverts him -- and us -- with more flying fun.


WHAT "Pippin"

WHERE Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St., Manhattan

INFO $59-$148; 212-239-6200; pippinthemusical.com

BOTTOM LINE Acrobats rule. So does Andrea Martin.

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