Circus can’t obscure the dreary existential angst in ‘Pippin’

SHARE Circus can’t obscure the dreary existential angst in ‘Pippin’

There is no shortage of spectacle, talent or fabulous legs on the stage of the Cadillac Palace Theatre at the moment, where the national touring company of director Diane Paulus’ circus-infused production of “Pippin” is so desperately trying to inject life into one of the drearier and more sophomorically cynical musicals in the Broadway annals.

Yet no matter how many hoops the show’s athletic cast might jump through, the alternately pasted-on smiles and extreme crankiness only increase in intensity as this retooled edition of the 1972 musical, with a score by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Roger O. Hirson, unspools.

And there are many moments when all you might want to do is cry out for “Candide,” a truly great musical that in many ways deals with the same subject matter — the education of an innocent in the darker forces at work in the world, and his effort to make peace with himself. (If not “Candide,” then at least “Spamalot,” which capitalizes on not taking itself seriously— and from which Paulus has borrowed a bit).

‘PIPPIN’

Somewhat recommended

When: Through Aug. 9

Where: Cadillac Palace Theater,151 W. Randolph

Tickets: $27 – $95

Info: (800) 775-2000; http://www.BroadwayInChicago.com

Run time: 2 hours and 35 minutes, with one intermission

Most crucially, aside from the title character’s grandmother (more about her later), there is no one to root for in this show —certainly not the protagonist, Pippin (Sam Lips, who sings, dances and finesses some acrobatic tricks with the best of them).

The educated son of that powerhouse of the Middle Ages, Charlemagne (John Rubinstein as a rather clownishly boorish father who just happens to be the first Holy Roman Emperor), Pippin embarks on a post-university search for meaning. But his wish to be “extraordinary” in life seems more like the “spoiled brat” ache of a twentysomething trust fund kid who can travel the world because he has no college loans to repay.

Framed as a show-within-a-show, “Pippin” was originally staged as a Bob Fosse burlesque of sorts. Paulus has given us an itinerant troupe of performers in the Cirque du Soleil tradition, even turning to Dominique Lemieux, a veteran Cirque costume designer, for gorgeously hued Spandex magic.

It is the members of this circus/theater troupe who enact the story of Pippin as he heads off to war (with a decapitation scene that seems all too glib given the very real beheadings we now see in the Middle East), engages in sex orgies (a cage and whip routine is as exhausted as it is exhausting, and just as heavy-handed as the sex scenes in Paulus’ revival of “Hair”). Pippin also commits patricide (played largely for laughs) before finally hooking up with Catherine (Kristine Reese), a well-meaning widow with a young son (also rather bratty), who wants him to care for her despite all the signs that he will remain more or less emotionally detached.

Sam Lips plays Pippin in the national touring company of the musical. (Photo: Martha Rial)

Sam Lips plays Pippin in the national touring company of the musical. (Photo: Martha Rial)

Acting as the commanding director/stage manager in all this is a bossy Leading Player (Sasha Allen, a woman with a sultry voice and fine Fosse-esque moves, in the role first created by Ben Vereen).

And then there is Pippin’s grandmother, Berthe (Adrienne Barbeau, a star of Broadway and television in the 1970s and ’80s who is now bedazzling at age 70). A seductive actress, with a sensational figure, she stops the show with a sexy duet on a trapeze. Enough said.

The show’s 10 distinctive circus performers, under the direction of Gypsy Snider (of Montreal’s fabled 7 Fingers company), are omnipresent, much-needed distractions, with the gargantuan Dmitrious Bistrevsky adding an element of comedy. They cavort on Scott Pask’s set — a beauty of a circus tent and throne room evoking the colors of the magical Sainte-Chappelle church in Paris.

The show’s finale is an elongated hash of ideas that never fully gel, and only reinforce the emptiness that plagues “Pippin” throughout. It’s enough to make you leave the theater humming Leonard Bernstein’s “Make Our Garden Grow” for solace.

NOTE: Different performers will step into the roles of Pippin, Leading Player, Berthe and Catherine during week two of the Chicago run.

Adrienne Barbeau plays Berthe in “Pippin.” (Photo: Sara Hanna)

Adrienne Barbeau plays Berthe in “Pippin.” (Photo: Sara Hanna)

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