Review: Pippin at the Broward Center | New Times Broward-Palm Beach


Pippin at the Broward Center Connects With Audiences

Pippin is not your average, ordinary everyday kind of Broadway show, and that’s exactly why you should go see it. Birthed in 1972 by writer Roger O. Hirson, choreographer Bob Fosse, and composer Stephen Schwartz, this deeply significant yet hilariously satirical musical has been revived for our modern-day stage. After a year and a half run at the Music Box Theater in New York, Pippin went on the road and is now touring to more than 25 U.S. cities—including Fort Lauderdale at the Broward Center and West Palm Beach at the Kravis Center. (Sorry Miami, you got Schwarts’s Wicked last month.)

O. Hirson based the play on actual historical figures—Charlemagne, or "Charles the Great", King of the Franks, and his son. The story is set during the Middle Ages in Europe and is told by traveling Circus performers underneath the big top. The leading player not only narrates the tale, but also interjects into this young prince's story by directing him to try fill the void in his heart with earthly pleasures, ambition, and simple joys. Pippin is on a quest to find his place in the world and earnestly travels down different paths to find fulfillment in life. After joining a holy war, sowing his wild oats in massive orgies, killing his father in a revolution, and then living an ordinary life on a farm, Pippin is still left feeling purposeless and falls into despair. The lovely widow Catherine and her son Theo encourage him on his journey and capture his heart. Pippin falls in love and gains some direction, yet the leading player still tries to deviously convince Pippin to end his life in one glorious flame for the finale. He decides once and for all that his life, though ordinary at times, is actually worth living. 
I saw Pippin on its opening night at the Broward Center’s Au-Rene Theater. Excited to see Sasha Allen as the leading player due to my addiction to The Voice (she was a finalist in Season 4), I was disappointed to discover when I walked in that she wouldn’t be doing any magic that evening. Allen was sick and in need of vocal rest. So Lisa Karlin was handed the torch instead and she delivered a fantastic performance with a striking, devilish grin and an eerie stare. Her presence seemed to seep throughout every nook and cranny of the theater, making you feel like you couldn’t escape her invitation to jump into the ring.

Set underneath a big top circus tent, Karlin and her mystical players draw you in by mesmerizing you with magic and performing amazing stunts. One would think that combining elements from the German legend of Faust, medieval European historical figures, Fosse's 70s gyrations and pop tunes, and a bunch of Cirque du Soleil-style acrobats would make the show, well, confusing and just plain weird. But all of these themes woven together made for an incredibly creative and moving performance. This play has many themes and layers—from fatalism to the purposelessness of war. 

I instantly fell in love with the music and was impressed by how Director Diana Paulus blended the circus stunts into the story. In act two, a pair of players do a daring balancing trick to illustrate Pippin and Catherine's attempt at an orgasm. For the record, they weren’t successful the first time, but nailed it on the second.

Right after seeing Wicked at the Adrienne Arsht Center last week, I was struck by the creativity of Pippin’s set design. In Wicked, every single scene has a completely different setup and look, whereas in Pippin every line is spoken under the big top. The tent has a different colorful glow for every song to present a varied mood—red for the orgy in “With You,” a starry and blue night sky for “Love Song,” and bright yellow for “Extraordinary.”

This musical also has the perfect blend of satire and seriousness to make you think about why you exist, but still laugh at death. During the choruses, “War is a Science” and “Glory,” Charles demonstrates war tactics using hand puppets and Pippin tries to sort out his feelings about death with a talking head that was just lobbed off a soldier. Think Monty Python meets David Copperfield.

Aside from the grand finale that gave me goosebumps, my favorite scene was with Adrienne Barbeau as Berthe during “No Time at All.” Barbeau stepped in for Lucie Arnaz (Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s daughter) right in the middle of the tour to give her some vocal time off. Barbeau seemed to effortlessly pull off hanging on a trapeze and singing at the same time. Barbeau seemed to effortlessly pull off hanging on a trapeze and singing at the same time. She embodied such a convincing wise granny that I felt like I was watching my own grandparent right in front of me. Additionally, John Rubinstein, the original Pippin star in 1972 now performing as Charles (AKA Charlemagne), acted out the funniest character I’ve ever seen on Broadway. From taking a holy pilgrimage on a Razor scooter to throwing knives, his every movement on stage made me smile.

Comical kings and death-defying stunts aside, I believe the real magic of Pippin is how the cast interacts with the audience. The characters speak directly to you in the seats, juggle in the aisles, and let you sing the chorus lines with them. Their engagement draws you in and leaves you to ponder. We can all relate to Pippin as we each try to find our place in the world—our corner in the sky. We've all had our darkest moments of despair on that search. Sex, politics, and glamour don’t satisfy our souls—all of these illusions leave us feeling empty. True love, stripped bare of costumes, lights, and all the things that glitter, is what makes life worth living.
I have a feeling that many who are familiar with Bob Fosse’s original won’t be able to help comparing, and there are countless reviews that can’t let go of all his hip thrusts. But my challenge to those attenders is to enter Au-Rene Theater with an open mind and forget about the '70s style you know. Walk under this tent with new eyes and ears. For the millennials like me who likely have never heard Michael Jackson’s cover of “Morning Glow” on the radio — because we weren’t even born — Pippin is worth the ticket. 

I still can’t understand why Pippin hasn't taken off like the longstanding craze of Wicked—which has toured to South Florida six times. Pippin deserves to be on Broadway for more than a season. Perhaps the lurking topic of suicide, serious existentialist themes, and '70s-style music and choreography don't easily gain popularity like Glinda the Good in Oz. Having been a huge fan of Schwartz’s Wicked for years, I now have a new favorite.

Pippin runs through April 12 at Au-Rene Theater at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale; 954-462-0222, Tickets cost $34.75. April 28-May 3 at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach; 561-832-7469, Tickets cost $25.
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Michelle de Carion

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