Performing Arts

‘Pippin’ works its razzle-dazzle magic at the Broward Center

Sam Lips prepares to go to war in the touring company of ‘Pippin’ at the Broward Center.
Sam Lips prepares to go to war in the touring company of ‘Pippin’ at the Broward Center. Martha Rial

When the title character in Pippin sings of the restlessness that will send him on a wild journey toward self-fulfillment, he observes: “Everything has its season/Everything has its time.”

Pippin, however, has had a pair of successful, lengthy Broadway seasons. And thanks to the way the Stephen Schwartz-Roger O. Hirson musical was realized by two masterful directors of different generations — first Bob Fosse, then Diane Paulus — Pippin has also proven timeless.

The touring company of Paulus’ Tony Award-winning, circus-style 2013 revival has landed at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts for a two-week run, and it’s everything that its colorfully costumed cast promises in the opening number, Magic to Do.

Intrigue, humor, romance, illusion, battles and a show-within-a-show are all on the menu. So are feats of circus athleticism that have you holding your breath as the actors prove being a mere triple threat is for amateurs. This crew can tumble, leap and perform tricks high above the stage while looking impressive alongside seasoned circus pros.

Director-choreographer Fosse’s original 1972 production imagined the cast as traveling players performing a very loose take on the story of conquering King Charlemagne and his eldest son. Paulus and her collaborators, including circus content creator Gypsy Snider of Montreal’s Les 7 doigts de la main and choreographer Chet Walker (who danced in Fosse’s version), have made the wandering troupe circus performers whose storytelling unfolds on and above the stage.

Fosse’s style and sensibility flavor the action, as Walker pays tribute to the master with an array of jazz hands, pelvic thrusts, bent postures and flexed limbs. The famous “Manson Trio” dance is pure (and brilliant) Fosse, a thrill to experience live.

Actor John Rubinstein’s presence makes this touring company a special one. He created the title role in Fosse’s production; now, more than 40 years later, he’s playing Pippin’s father King Charles, aka Charlemagne. Lithe, expressive both physically and vocally, Rubinstein conveys all the facets of the character — imperiousness, bloodthirstiness, lust for his hot wife, pragmatism — with an overarching humor. He’s wonderful to watch.

Sam Lips is this version’s Pippin, and he’s all that a musical theater leading man should be. Well, more, if you count some of his spectacular circus tricks. Lips takes the character from adorable goofball, amusingly awkward and self-absorbed, to a young man who finally realizes he doesn’t have to be extraordinary in order to be happy.

Sasha Allen, the performer who normally plays the show’s manipulative Leading Player, was out sick at Tuesday’s opening, so understudy Lisa Karlin stepped up and amply, artfully filled the role. Karlin is a pro who has played major roles in such shows as Chicago and Sweet Charity (both were originally choreographed by Fosse), so she knows her way around jazz hands.

The first performance in Fort Lauderdale was also, notably, Adrienne Barbeau’s opening night in the role of Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother. Another musical theater pro who started her career in Broadway’s Fiddler on the Roof and Grease before being cast in TV’s Maude, Barbeau is a bit tentative vocally, but she exudes warmth as she leads Pippin and the audience through the song No Time at All. And this striking performer, who will (unfathomably) turn 70 in June, performs some dazzling tandem trapeze moves that prove age really is just a number, at least if you’re Adrienne Barbeau.

In other key roles, Sabrina Harper is a hot, scheming Fastrada, Pippin’s up-to-no-good stepmother; Callan Bergmann is equally hot as her son Lewis, a none-too-bright hunk whose behavior toward his mom is hilariously inappropriate; Kristine Reese is funny and tender as Catherine, the widow who shows Pippin a path into his future; and Lucas Schultz (who alternates with Stephen Sayegh) is petulant then vulnerable as Catherine’s son Theo, who will eventually follow in Pippin’s no-longer-innocent footsteps.

Paulus’ design collaborators — Scott Pask, creator of the circus tent set; Dominique Lemieux, designer of the colorful and tricky costumes; lighting designer Kenneth Posner, and sound designers Jonathan Deans and Garth Helm — contribute mightily to the style of a show whose razzle-dazzle is enshrined in Schwartz’s clever, sometimes ironic lyrics.

Early on, the Leading Player promises a finale so spectacular that we in the audience will never forget it. But just as it looks like Pippin will indeed experience one final trial by fire, the show abruptly halts. The Leading Player demands that all the showbiz gloss be stripped away, a Brechtian move that gives the audience a peek at the reality behind the make-believe magic. For Paulus and company, it’s a striking final stop on a monumentally entertaining journey.

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.

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

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