Diane Paulus’ Bold Reimagining of “Pippin” Is a Fantastical Blend of Song-and-Dance and Cirque

Sasha Allen (center) stars as the Leading Player in the National Tour of "Pippin" (photo by Terry Shapiro)
Sasha Allen (center) stars as the Leading Player in the National Tour of “Pippin” (photo by Terry Shapiro)

2013 Broadway Revival and tour director Diane Paulus’ bold reimagining of Pippin, playing tonight through Sunday at the Durham Performing Arts Center as part of DPAC‘s SunTrust Broadway Series, is a fantastical blend of dark comedy, song-and-dance, and Cirque Nouveau. Broadway and tour choreographer Chet Walker’s dazzling dance routines, in the style of the 1972 Broadway musical’s original director and choreographer, Bob Fosse, combine with the breathtaking acrobatics of Montréal-based Les 7 doigts de la main (7 Fingers) to make the current National Tour of Pippin a night of theater that DPAC patrons will remember for years and years to come.

There are not enough superlatives to describe how 2013 Tony Award®-winning director Diane Paulus, 2013 Tony-nominated choreographer Chet Walker, and circus choreographer Gypsy Snider have punched up the proceedings. Their musical-comedy magic — combined with a spectacular multilevel circus set by 2013 Tony-nominated scenic designer Scott Pask, Technicolor costumes by 2013 Tony-nominated costume designer Dominique Lemieux, and artful illumination by 2013 Tony-nominated lighting designer Kenneth Posner — transforms the 2013 National Tour of Pippin into a theatrical thrill ride.

Using the obscure life and times of Pepin (or Pippin) the Hunchback (c. 767-811), Ninth Century Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne’s rebellious oldest son and one-time heir as a springboard, Godspell and Wicked composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz and Walking Happy librettist Roger O. Hirson spin a timeless musical fable about a medieval prodigal son searching for his place in the cosmos and the meaning of life — via glory in battle, flings in fleshpots, revolutionary politics and, finally, the simple pleasures of “ordinary life.”

Kyle Dean Massey is terrific as the show’s whimsical title character, for whom the figurative glass is always half empty. He demonstrates a firm grasp of Pippin’s petulant personality, a fine flair for comedy, and a most expressive singing voice.

Slick and sassy Lisa Karlin, substituting on May 12th for the injured Sasha Allen, also gives a crowd-pleasing performance as the cynical and somewhat sinister Leading Player, who serves as Pippin’s tour guide throughout his quixotic quest to find complete fulfillment. Ulterior motives? The Leading Player has a few — and they are as dark as midnight in a coal mine.

Broadway's original Pippin, John Rubinstein, plays Pippin's distant-but-fond father Charles the Great on tour in the National Tour of "Pippin" (photo by Terry Shapiro)
Broadway’s original Pippin, John Rubinstein, plays Pippin’s distant-but-fond father Charles the Great on tour in the National Tour of “Pippin” (photo by Terry Shapiro)

Broadway’s original Pippin, John Rubinstein, gives a delightful scene-stealing performance as the irascible Charles the Great, who rules the Holy Roman Empire with an iron fist; and Adrienne Barbeau adds a sharply etched cameo as Pippin’s sexy grandmother Berthe, whom her son Charles has banished from the court. Her delivery of Berthe’s signature song, “No Time at All,” from a precarious midair perch on a trapeze is one of the show’s highlights.

Also provoking belly laughs is Sabrina Harper’s swivel-hipped portrayal of Charles’ mercenary second wife, Fastrada, who is hell bent on seeing that her dim-witted, narcissistic son, Lewis, supplants Pippin in the order of succession. Harper sizzles as the serpent in Charles the Great’s own private Garden of Eden, and Callan Bergmann struts and frets hilariously as the insufferable Lewis.

As Catherine, a beautiful young widow with a small boy and a large estate who catches Pippin’s perpetually roving eye, Kristine Reese is both sincere and increasingly desperate to forge ties that will bind the handsome but noncommittal young wanderer to her. And young Lucas Schultz, who alternates with Stephen Sayegh in the role of Catherine’s son, Theo, makes the most of his moments in the spotlight.

The term “must-see musical” is probably overused hereabouts, but it certainly applies to Pippin. The tour’s acting, singing, and dancing are superb; its production values and special effects are awesome; and the acrobatic feats added by the effervescent Les 7 doigts de la main are breathtaking. Performing under a splendid set that sometimes suggests the canvas billowing over the center ring of a circus tent and at other times melts away to reveal a starry, starry night sky, the actors and acrobats of Pippin fork theatrical lightning, and earn an enthusiastic and prolonged standing ovation for their efforts.

Adrienne Barbeau (third from right) stars as Pippin's sexy grandmother Berthe in "Pippin"
Adrienne Barbeau (third from right) stars as Pippin’s sexy grandmother Berthe in “Pippin”

SECOND OPINION: May 13, 2015 Durham, NC Herald-Sun preview by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: http://www.heraldsun.com/lifestyles/entertainment/x219727753/REVIEW-The-unexpected-with-Pippin and April 30, 2015 preview by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: http://www.heraldsun.com/news/localnews/x1222488185/-FANTASTIC-NEW-ROLE-Ex-Maude-star-Barbeau-in-Pippin-at-DPAC (Note: You must subscribe to read these articles); May 9, 2015 Raleigh, NC News & Observer preview by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article20495859.html; May 6, 2015 Burlington, NC Times-News preview by Lincoln Pennington, written for “Teens & Twenties”: http://teensandtwenties.com/seasoned-actors-head-to-durham-for-pippin/; May 4, 2015 Raleigh, NC BroadwayWorld.com Raleigh interview with John Rubinstein, conducted by Jeffrey Karasarides: http://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/BWW-Interviews-JOHN-RUBINSTEIN-of-PIPPIN-National-Tour-and-the-Original-Broadway-Cast-20150504; March 31, 2015 New York City Playbill.com preview by Michael Gioia: http://www.playbill.com/news/article/original-star-of-broadways-grease-swings-into-national-tour-of-pippin-tonight-345496 and June 25, 2014 preview by Michael Gioia: http://www.playbill.com/news/article/the-voice-finalist-will-have-magic-to-do-on-pippin-tour-john-rubinstein-wil-322906; and Jan. 4, 2015 New York City CBS News preview by David Pogue for “Sunday Morning”: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/pippin-goes-on-the-road/. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the May 12th Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2015/05/pippin-has-magic-to-do-at-dpac-on-may-12-17/.)

The Durham Performing Arts Center presents PIPPIN at 7:30 p.m. May 13 and 14, 8 p.m. May 15, 2 and 8 p.m. May 16, 1 and 6:30 p.m. May 17 at 123 Vivian St., Durham, North Carolina 27701, in the American Tobacco Historic District.

TICKETS: $40.90-$161.57 (including fees). Click here for DPAC Special Offers.


DPAC Box Office: 919-680-ARTS (2787), tickets@dpacnc.com, or http://www.dpacnc.com/events-tickets/where-to-buy.

Ticketmaster: 800-982-2787 or http://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/115558/987363.

GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919/281-0587, Groups@DPACnc.com, or http://www.dpacnc.com/events-tickets/group-services.

SHOW: http://www.dpacnc.com/events/detail/pippin and https://www.facebook.com/events/527450710709168/.

VIDEO PREVIEWS: http://www.pippinthemusical.com/videos.php.

DPAC NEWS RELEASE: http://www.dpacnc.com/news/detail/pippin-casting-announced.

U.S. TOUR: http://www.pippinthemusical.com/tour.php.

TOUR CAST: http://www.pippinthemusical.com/cast.php.

CREATIVE TEAM: http://www.pippinthemusical.com/creative.php.

PRODUCERS: http://www.pippinthemusical.com/producers.php.

SUNTRUST BROADWAY SERIES: http://www.dpacnc.com/suntrust-broadway-series-2014-15.

PRESENTER/VENUE: http://www.dpacnc.com/, https://www.facebook.com/DPACNC, https://twitter.com/DPAC, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Durham_Performing_Arts_Center.

DIRECTIONS: http://www.dpacnc.com/plan_your_visit/getting_here.

PARKING: http://www.dpacnc.com/plan_your_visit/parking_guide.

DPAC AGE RESTRICTION: “All guests require a ticket, regardless of age. Children under the age of 6 will not be admitted to the theater. Children must be able to sit quietly in their own seat without disturbing other guests. As a further courtesy to our guests, DPAC recommends one parent or chaperone for every one child in attendance.”

DPAC CONTENT ADVISORY: DPAC warns that this play has “adult themes” and is “not recommended for young children.”

NOTE: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 8 p.m. Friday, May 15th, performance.


Pippin (1972 Broadway and 1973 West End musical): http://www.pippinthemusical.com/ (official website), http://www.musicalschwartz.com/pippin.htm (MusicalSchwartz.com), http://www.mtishows.com/show_detail.asp?showid=000060 (Music Theatre International), http://ibdb.com/show.php?id=7111 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.facebook.com/pippinmusical (Facebook page), https://twitter.com/PippinMusical (Twitter page), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pippin_%28musical%29 (Wikipedia).

Study Guide: http://www.bard.org/education/studyguides/Pippin/pippin.html (Utah Shakespeare Festival).

Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics): http://www.stephenschwartz.com/ (official website), http://www.musicalschwartz.com/ (official fan site), http://ibdb.com/person.php?id=12375 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0777451/ (Internet Movie Database), https://www.facebook.com/ComposerStephen (Facebook community page), https://twitter.com/composerstephen (Twitter page), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Schwartz_%28composer%29 (Wikipedia).

Roger O. Hirson (book): http://ibdb.com/person.php?id=6311 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0386678/ (Internet Movie Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_O._Hirson (Wikipedia).

Les 7 doigts de la main (7 fingers) (Montréal circus troupe): http://7doigts.com/ (official website).

EDITOR’S NOTE: Robert W. McDowell has written articles for The News & Observer, The Raleigh Times, Spectator Magazine, CVNC, and Triangle Arts and Entertainment, all based in Raleigh. He edits and publishes two FREE weekly e-mail newsletters. Triangle Review provides comprehensive, in-depth coverage of local performing-arts events. (Start your FREE subscription by e-mailing robertm748@aol.com and typing SUBSCRIBE TR in the Subject: line.) McDowell also maintains a FREE list of movie sneak previews. (To subscribe, e-mail robertm748@aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE FFL FREE in the Subject: line.)

By Robert W. McDowell

Robert W. McDowell is a Raleigh, NC-based freelance writer, editor, and critic. He has written theater, film, book, and music previews and reviews for The News & Observer, The Raleigh Times, Spectator Magazine, and Classical Voice of North Carolina, all based in Raleigh. In 1980-91, he covered business, industry, government, and education for (We the People of) North Carolina magazine, published monthly by N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry. In April 2001, McDowell started Robert's Reviews, a FREE weekly e-mail newsletter that provides comprehensive, in-depth coverage of the performing arts in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, which includes Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, and Carrboro. Triangle Review is the latest-and-greatest version of McDowell's original newsletter. (To start your FREE subscription, e-mail robertm748[at]aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE TR in the Subject: line.) From December 1980 until September 2017, McDowell served on the board of directors of The Cinema, Inc., a Raleigh-based nonprofit film society formed in 1966. He currently publishes a weekly list of FREE advance screenings of movies in the Triangle area. (To have your e-mail address added to this FREE list, e-mail robertm748[at]aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE FFL FREE in the Subject: line.) McDowell also co-edited and supervised the production of Jim Valvano's Guide to Great Eating (JTV Enterprises, 1984), a 224-page sports celebrity cookbook; and he served as a fact checker for Valvano: They Gave Me a Lifetime Contract, and Then They Declared Me Dead (Pocket Books, 1991).