If you didn't once end up as a background player in a high school production of Pippin, you're probably in the minority. But the once popular often maligned 1972 musical by Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson, with original direction and choreography by Bob Fosse, was a far darker and more beautiful thing than what ended up playing out on thousands of dumbed-down high school gymnasium stages over the last couple of decades. So, too, is this new production by Tony-winning director Diane Paulus that comes direct from Broadway, where it remains a popular draw. The cast of players here becomes an inexhaustible circus troupe to rival the best of the best think Cirque du Soleil only less cheesy and Canadian and the musical itself almost plays second fiddle to their death-defying, visually awesome assault of stunts.
That's actually a good thing. While I love some of the music in Pippin, as vampy, seductive, and 70s as it is, the story here is still one of the most awkward ever told in a Broadway context. This is the tale of Pippin, the son of medieval French King Charlemagne (played in the touring cast by John Rubinstein, who was the original Broadway Pippin of 1972) who returns from university to find that he doesn't know what he wants to do with his life. In a thinly veiled metaphor for the disillusioned kids of the hippie era, Pippin tries his hand at war, and at sex, and at religion, and even farming, before figuring out that all he really needs is the love of a good woman.
Given the above, and knowing that the medieval military escapades of Charlemagne form the core plot of the show's first half, you can understand when I say that the circus stuff is almost the only reason to sit through Act 1. Well, that and the marvelous number by Pippin's grandmother, played here by the great Lucie Arnaz, in a role that won Andrea Martin a Tony last year.
The cast is terrific, including the same affable young actor who played the role of Pippin in the Broadway production up until this past April, Matthew James Thomas; the beguiling Kristina Reese as Catherine; and the strong-voiced, wildly limber Sasha Allen as the Lead Player, despite the latter occasionally sounding less sure of herself than this role demands. Rubinstein, also, does great comedic work as the King in Act 1.
But it's the acrobatics and jaw-dropping circus artistry that is the hands-down reason to see this show it is also entirely, and impressively, intact from the Broadway version, as choreographed by San Francisco circus royalty Gypsy Snider, daughter and step-daughter, respectively, of Pickle Family Circus founders Peggy Snider and Larry Pisoni. Ms. Snider currently directs the Montreal circus troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main, and she's assembled an astonishing group of circus athletes who double here as company members in Pippin's drama, and do the hardest work throughout the show in keeping audiences' eyes wide and attention fixed on the stage.
You will walk out of this show humming things like "Love Song" and "Magic To Do," and you will go to bed dreaming about people defying gravity and delighting you with childlike awe.
Pippin plays through October 19 at the Golden Gate Theater. Get tickets here.