When the Volkswagen Beetle was first introduced into the U.S. market in January of 1949, it was labelled an “unconventional oddity” and critics predicted that the German machine was doomed to unpopularity. But somehow, the Beetle’s oddness worked. People fell in love with the unique style, adaptability, and practicality of the car–and today the Beetle is an integral part of our cultural history. Similarly, the Broadway musical Pippin was reimagined in 2013, amidst claims that the new circus-focused interpretation of the musical would be a flop. But the intense acrobatics, magical feats, and revitalized plotline have catapulted the Pippin revival to gain immense popularity and snag four Tony awards in 2013. Pippin, now at the Orpheum Theatre through February 22, lives up to high expectations: the innovative format, excellent singers, acrobats, and technical elements combined with a simple–yet impactful–message, make this production what I like to call the “Beetle of Musicals.”
Over time, the Beetle’s unique shape and colors have transformed it into an “icon of unconventionality and individualism,” according to Bloomberg News. Likewise, the revival of Pippin blazes a new, innovative trail in its format, singing, acrobatics, and tech. This new Pippin is an unusual mix of the goofy medieval acting and costumes of Spamalot, the acrobatics of Cirque du Soleil, and the omniscient narrator and audience interaction of Our Town. This mish-mash of performance styles may sound disjointed on paper, but on stage it is dazzling and coherent; the artistic vision of director Diane Paulus truly works.
The performers shaped this musical into a breathtaking adventure. This star-studded cast included none other than the actor who played the part of Pippin in the original Broadway cast, John Rubinstein, in the hilarious role of Charles (based off of Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor). Equally impressive was the performance of Priscilla Lopez (Berthe), who manages to successfully to get the entire audience singing. But the woman who stole the show was the one and only Sasha Allen, withattention-riveting stage presence and a voice that rivals those of the most famous soul singers.
In addition to the singing and dancing, the acrobatics of Pippin are phenomenal. The combination of gymnastics and complex dancing keep the audience constantly on the edge of their seats. Choreographer Chet Walker’s forty years of experience and Circus Creator Gypsy Snider’s acrobatic expertise make this production vivid and memorable.
Not unlike the groundbreaking technical design of the Beetle, the tech of Pippin deserves some of the greatest praise. Kenneth Posner’s lighting design is vibrant and gorgeous, transforming the stage instantly into a multitude of completely distinct settings. Overall, the unique format, singing, acrobatics, and technical elements of Pippin make it a must-see show.
One of the most famous advertisements in history–a full page with a single Beetle car and the caption “Think Small”–was created by Helmut Krone in order to spread the simple “think small” philosophy of the Beetle. Pippin is anything but small, but it has a similarly concise message: living an ordinary life is the way to fulfillment. The character of Pippin struggles throughout the show to find a cause or vocation that is completely fulfilling, but it evades him. The haunting finale of the musical is one of the most powerful endings in a Broadway musical; the actors are very convincing in their argument that an ordinary life is best. However, the irony of the situation is not lost: these actors proclaim the virtues of a regular life as they perform extraordinary feats of singing and acrobatics in a traveling Broadway company. Despite this irony, Pippin’s short and important message comes across.
The Beetle was once so extraordinary that people bought it in droves, making it a typical vehicle. The new interpretation of Pippin will probably follow the same path; the circus component is so unexpected and successful that in the future the circus will always be the default. Thus the tent, tricks, and circus master of thePippin revival may very well become commonplace. One might theorize that because of this Pippin will lose its luster. However, the Beetle was commercially successful for many years and didn’t lose its charm. We can hope that the revival of Pippin, the “Beetle of Musicals,” will become just as ingrained into American culture, and just as enchanting for generations to come.