Performing Arts

Reviving the conqueror: 'Pippin' aims for dazzle and depth

Sam Lips goes on a life-altering journey in the touring company of ‘Pippin’ at the Broward Center.
Sam Lips goes on a life-altering journey in the touring company of ‘Pippin’ at the Broward Center. Martha Rial

When Pippin debuted on Broadway in 1972, the Vietnam War was raging, and one facet of the musical — the depiction of a bloody campaign waged by King Charles (aka Charlemagne) against the Visigoths in 780 A.D. — was particularly disturbing to audiences steeped in war.

Oh, the Stephen Schwartz-Roger O. Hirson musical was a massive, entertaining hit. Its storyline follows the adventures and misadventures of Pippin, Charlemagne’s son, as he attempts to find his purpose. Composer Schwartz describes it as “a young man trying to figure out what to do with his life and making a series of missteps,” a theme that speaks to audiences of any era.

The great director-choreographer Bob Fosse staged the original as a play-within-a-play, a story performed by a troupe of traveling players. It was a razzle-dazzle success stamped with his signature style, and it ran on Broadway nearly five years. But given the context of the times, it was also eerily resonant.

In 2013, Pippin returned to Broadway in an imaginative circus-themed revival staged by Diane Paulus — who, like Fosse, received the best director Tony Award for her work. That production, winner of the Tony as best revival of a musical, is now on tour, and it arrives at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday for a two-week run.

Much has changed from the era of the first Pippin to the second, of course. But Paulus’ breathtaking version, in which a circus troupe performs the story of Pippin with the added element of under-the-big-top tricks, was also created in a world at war. As she observes, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” And certain aspects of human behavior, such as the unbridled lust for power, really don’t change.

Actor John Rubinstein, who created the title role in Fosse’s Pippin, followed Terrence Mann as Charles in Paulus’ Broadway production and is now playing Pippin’s ruthless father on tour. Like Chet Walker, who choreographed Paulus’ production and was in Fosse’s, Rubinstein has a long history with the show and an insightful perspective.

“In the old days, the Vietnam War was on TV every night. You saw the war. We had the draft, and everyone was figuring that out. Should I stay in school? Be sent there and forced to kill?” Rubinstein says. “Now we are equally at war. This country loves to be at war. … I have a 9-year-old boy, and he hasn’t lived a day when we weren’t at war.”

When he was in the original Pippin, Rubinstein says, “there was a chill in the theater.” Now he’s playing the warmonger, and though there’s irony in that — he believes that in any other time “George W. Bush would be tried as a war criminal — he goes all in when it comes to playing Charlemagne as a conqueror “dripping with glee as he causes mayhem and death.”

Composer Schwartz, whose megahit Wicked wraps up its run at Miami’s Arsht Center just as Pippin heads from Naples to Fort Lauderdale, was in his 20s, a hot young composer with the hit Godspell under his belt, when he worked with Broadway titan Fosse on Pippin. The process wasn’t an easy one.

“Bob was a difficult collaborator for writers. I’m not the only one who found that,” Schwartz says. “Working with Diane was much easier and more pleasant.”

Paulus, artistic director of the Harvard-based American Repertory Theater, directed the Tony-winning revival of Hair and is staging the new Broadway musical version of Finding Neverland (about Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie), now in previews. She suggested the circus idea to Schwartz, who calls her staging and the integrated circus feats created by Gypsy Snider of Montreal’s Les 7 doigts de la main “amazing.”

Observes Rubinstein, “Pippin hadn’t been revived because it really requires a vision. It can take place in any kind of background at all. Diane came up with the circus metaphor, which was brilliant.”

Although Paulus was just 6 years old when the original Pippin opened on Broadway, she was a New Yorker whose parents exposed her to the city’s cultural riches. She saw the show three times and vividly remembers “the theatricality, the Fosse moves, Ben Vereen’s performance [as The Leading Player]. I was utterly seduced by the world onstage,” Paulus recalls.

Post-Hair, Paulus was thinking about other shows she’d wanted to do, and Pippin topped the list.

“I was trying to crack who this troupe of players was. Then I thought about the circus coming to town and pitching a tent. And you either end up running away with the circus or going back to your life,” she says. “[Choreographer] Chet Walker was in the original and said Fosse loved the circus. He loved the world of Federico Fellini and clowns. In the original choreography, it felt like circus was in the DNA of Pippin — but Fosse was working with dancers.”

Paulus, who directed Amaluna for Cirque du Soleil, thought that a circus performer’s quest to be physically extraordinary could be a metaphor for Pippin’s journey.

“What I love about Pippin is that, through spectacle, entertainment and great theater-making, whether it’s circus or dance, it taps into a very human story about what matters most in life. It’s a theatricalization of how you think about your life, how you throw yourself into the fire to find out what matters to you,” she says.

Seven of the performers in Pippin come from the circus world, but they’re not the only ones who pull off some amazing moves. Adrienne Barbeau, who created the role of tough gal Betty Rizzo in Grease the same year Pippin opened, will join the tour in Fort Lauderdale to play Pippin’s grandmother Berthe.

The actress and novelist will sing one of the show’s best-known songs, No Time at All, while wearing a showgirl costume and hanging upside down from a trapeze suspended 12 feet above the stage. That’s wildly different from the way that Irene Ryan, who had just finished her long run as Granny in TV’s Beverly Hillbillies, played Berthe in the original.

“It’s a handful,” Barbeau says, laughing. “This is a remarkable telling of a story that’s so timely and timeless. Here we are dealing with war, religious differences, persecution, taxes, issues of leadership. It’s fascinating.”

As for what Berthe shares with Pippin — whether upside down or right-side up — Barbeau says it’s a philosophy she embraces.

“She’s presenting a philosophy of life that I try to follow, which is to live in the moment. We need to let that inform how we deal with everything around us, because we don’t know what will happen,” she says.

Barbeau’s young costars are Sam Lips as Pippin and Sasha Allen as The Leading Player, a kind of narrator-ringmaster.

Lips is playing his first leading role on tour, and the University of Michigan grad says that at first, singing, dancing and doing the circus tricks were tough.

“I had to baby myself, but by the ninth week, I got it under my belt in terms of muscle memory. But it has to look fresh every night, because in the story, this is the actor’s first time playing Pippin,” he says.

Lips adds of Paulus’ concept, “When you see the show, it’s hard to imagine doing it any other way.”

Allen, who played Dionne in Paulus’ 2009 revival of Hair and was a finalist on The Voice in 2013, was initially hesitant about being The Leading Player on tour. But she watched video of Vereen’s performance, felt “empowered” and embraced the challenge.

Adding circus arts to her performer’s tool kit was not easy, though.

“It was terrible! You think you’re in good shape. But now I’m in the best shape of my life. I feel I’ve accomplished something new. I’ve had two kids, and now I have my pre-baby tummy back,” Allen says.

Allen’s children are young, just 3 and 9, and they’re on the road with her, accompanied by a nanny who has a degree in education. Their presence adds an extra layer of complexity as well as happiness to Allen’s life on the road, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Every mother is tired,” she says. “But when you do something you truly love, you find the fire.”

If you go

What: ‘Pippin’ by Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson.

Where: Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday (additional shows 6:30 p.m. April 5, 2 p.m. April 8), through April 12.

Cost: $34.75-$111.81.

Info: 954-462-0222 or www.browardcenter.org.

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