The Energy at Pippin May Wear You Out

The set-up:
Why is it that director Diane Paulus's circus-inspired revival (2013) of original director Bob Fosse's Fellini-esque Pippin (1972) – so bursting with energy, so filled with the exuberance of putting on a show, so damned eager to please and show off – is rather listless by the end?

It's not for want of trying. It's certainly not lifeless. The wizardly creators have sufficiently bombarded us with enough showbiz razzle-dazzle in the first act for a dozen shows. But, please, enough already of those slinky Fosse pelvic bumps and grinds, snapping jazz hands, and vaudeville straw hats and canes.

The execution:
Composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz's original idea, fleshed out with librettist Roger O. Hirson, was pretty much jettisoned when Bob Fosse, Broadway wunderkind, was hired to direct. Young Schwartz's reputation as creator of the phenom Godspell held no advantage. When Schwartz complained that Fosse was ruining his material, Fosse banned him from rehearsals.

Fosse rewrote the book and overlaid the soft amorphous story with his distinctively visual, idiosyncratic style (burlesque and vaudeville were tremendous influences on his jazz-infused numbers), which included a bleak, ironic view of humanity and a peculiar love/hatred of show business. His shows looked different, and moved different (Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, Redhead, Sweet Charity, his definitive Chicago would come three years later). Fosse saved scrawny Pippin by wrapping it in edgy showbiz tropes that hearkened to a old-time trooper's revue. The trooper came supplied with bootleg flask, rheumy eye, and sinewy sleekness. It was a master class in stagecraft camouflage.

Paulus's revival, a multiple Tony Award-winner, places the slim story in a circus setting, retaining much of Fosse's original choreography (by Chet Walker, “in the style of Bob Fosse”). Her version is also a master class – it, too, diverts while it wildly entertains.

We don't have time to think about paper-thin characters, simple story structure, or hoary jokes when we're pummeled by mighty impressive gymnastic feats, tumbling routines, and death-defying leaps (the entire cast seems able to shimmy up poles and hang perpendicular while singing). With breathless gusto, muscular acrobats (male and female) handstand, backflip, juggle, zoom across gigantic exercise balls, balance on one arm, vault through hoops, toss each other around like beanbags – one of them is swung like a jump rope – and slide perilously headfirst down bolts of silk only to stop inches from the floor (if you've seen Peter Pan 360 or any Cirque du Soleil show from the last, what, three hundred years, you know what I'm talking about).

The principals do a little of this, too. Well, maybe not with the same second-nature dexterity and innate circus know-how, but everyone works their asses off covering every square inch of stage space. Wait until you see Adrienne Barbeau as Pippin's randy granny – yes, the original Rizzo in Grease, Bea Arthur's daughter in Maude, the evil squeeze in Escape From New York – dangle from a trapeze and belt her anthem “No Time at All” to pep up her distraught grandson. She peps up the show as if on amphetamines.

Everyone's trying to pep up naive Pippin (Brian Flores, with powerhouse tenor). He's at a crisis. Young and restless, he's the son of Charlemagne (John Rubinstein – yes, that John Rubinstein, the original Pippin) and desperately desires to be exceptional, do exceptional things. No ordinary life for him. So, off he goes into the world, the innocent abroad, to find the meaning of life through escapades of war, sex, politics, social consciousness, domesticity.

He's led on his journey by the seductive Leading Player (cool as ice Gabrielle McClinton, who's got those patented Fosse moves down to a science). This master of ceremonies, like Cabaret's interlocutor, is wily and dangerous, luring him onward. Join us, she implies, stay with us, we're not ordinary! But when all is done, he tosses aside the empty trappings and returns to widow Catherine (a sweet-voiced Bradley Benjamin) and settles down.

By this time, the tent has been rolled up, the sparkling lighting dimmed to unflattering footlights, the stage bare. Harsh and unrelenting, the ending's a bummer after all that glittery, blinding panoply. The show's been seducing us, too, all along, so when the Leading Player pulls the rug out from Pippin, she pulls it out from us. Ha, if you don't want our life, foolish one, then we're outta here. Go, be a nobody, the show proclaims. The Leading Player walks out, taking her tinsel, glitter, and cast of acrobats with her.

Schwartz's songs are pleasant if not entirely memorable. There are whiffs of Godspell's simple hippiedom in “Morning Glow” and “Love Song,” and tantalizing traces of megawatt hit Wicked (far off in his future) in Pippin's wanting song, “Corner of the Sky.” Act II is a definite letdown after the magical, high-flying shenanigans in Act I, though. The scenes with Catherine need tightening, and the show starts to repeat itself – the dances do anyway.

The verdict:
This high-octane revival does have its charms, for when Paulus and “circus creator” Gypsy Snider, co-founder of Montreal's Les 7 Doigts de la Main (7 Fingers of the Hand), get on the same wavelength, Pippin flies high indeed. The chorus gyrates, the acrobats bound like frisky puppies, the lights pulsate, and lovely, leggy Fosse chorines strut and undulate in high heels.

The energy is relentless, the allure of showbiz intoxicating, and the entire cast glows with the glamour of it all. Loving them is exhausting.

Pippin continues through October 25. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. For information, call 800-982-2787 or visit $25-$125.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover