As the lights go down on the Orpheum audience, Stephen Schwartz’s infamous chords of “Magic to Do” emerge from a single note sustained on the strings. A giant silhouette appears through the curtain of a circus tent, with a top hat and jazz hands at the hips à la Fosse. The silhouette gets smaller and smaller until it’s the size of a person. A woman to be exact. Then, the curtain drops to reveal a breathtaking circus scene. A beginning so simple and yet so enticing. The circus players beg, “join us,” and we do.
This mysterious silhouetted woman is the Leading Player. She is the ring master of the circus and our narrator. Originally played by Ben Vereen in 1972, the part was played by Patina Miller in the Diane Paulus directed revival in 2013. Both actors won Tony awards for their performances – the first time the same role has been won by both a male and female. In the revival’s national tour, currently playing at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis through February 22, the Leading Player is played by the incomparable Sasha Allen. Best known for competing on Season 4 of “The Voice”, Allen’s voice has unparalleled strength. She brings a dark strength to the role that pierces through the usual sly charm of the Leading Player.
This circus tells the story of Pippin, an ‘everyman’ of sorts – an ordinary individual, with whom the audience is supposed to be able to identify easily, and who is often placed in extraordinary circumstances – who goes through an unconventional hero’s journey. He wants to feel fulfilled, but nothing is working. Along the way, Pippin speaks with many people who lead him to the next step on his journey: his father Charles (played by the 1972 cast’s Pippin, John Rubinstein), his step mother Fastrada (played by Sabrina Harper), his grandmother Berthe (played by the 1972 cast’s Fastrada, Priscilla Lopez), and Catherine and her son Theo (played by Kristine Reese and Lucas Schultz). In the end, he must make the decision between risking everything to be extraordinary, or compromising for a safe, ordinary life. Director Diane Paulus describes the main theme to be “how far we go to be extraordinary.”
Paulus has been on a role recreated beloved musicals. Before Pippin, she directed the award-winning revivals of HAIR and The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. Up next for Paulus is directing the new musical Finding Neverland, opening on Broadway in spring 2015. Paulus is well known for her ability to create visually stunning, modernized versions of musicals. Pippin is no different. From the moment the curtain drops and the circus is revealed, every aspect of the show is beautiful and polished. The scenic design, by Scott Pask, is minimal but masterful. Every set, prop, and backdrop is detailed and matches the overall aesthetic of a colorful, medieval circus. The circus creation, by Gypsy Snider, and the illusions, by Paul Kieve, are absolutely thrilling, adding the promised magic and miracles. Finally, the choreography, by original cast member Chet Walker, is a valentine to Bob Fosse’s famous choreography from the original Pippin. Complete with jazz hands, top hats, canes, black hot pants, and flexed feet, Walker’s choreography captures the recognizable characteristics of Fosse’s signatures, while still managing to create a modern interpretation. Every aspect of Pippin is flawless, providing one of the most visually appealing professional shows currently playing.
Beyond all of the physical attributes, Pippin makes you think. It makes you question. So as not to disclose everything, I’ll leave you with lyrics from Pippin’s ‘I want’ song (a tactic which is present in almost all of Schwartz’s work), “Corner of the Sky,” which illuminates Pippin as an ‘everyman’ as he begins the hero’s journey: “Every man has his daydreams / Every man has his goal / People like the way dreams have / Of sticking to the soul / Thunderclouds have their lightning / Nightingales have their song / And don’t you see I want my life to be / Something more than long…”