It’s a new year and Broadway San Jose has kicked it off with a show that will likely inspire you to immediately sign up for a dance class or run away with the circus. It could also instantaneously kill every single fitness resolution you’ve ever had or will have. Yes, with the incredibly imaginative and activity heavy Pippin, that’s pretty much what we’re looking at when the final bow occurs. Move over Barnum. Take a number Bailey. Not so fast Cirque. You’ve got stiff competition from the triple and quadruple-threated cast of this Tony-award winning musical revival in San Jose through this Sunday only.
Part vaudeville, part Monty Python, part philosophical sojourn and part historical poetic license, with plenty of big top action woven throughout classic Broadway style songs, there’s a shit-ton (it’s oaky, that’s a technical term, trust me, I looked it up) going on here. The show spins right on the edge of sensory overload with electric staging that’s impossibly rich and vibrant. The lighting and scene design could not be more saturated in spectacle and all the technical elements speak to the consistency of vision for this version. The truly tremendous costuming is fanciful and outrageously well-fitted to bodies that never really seem to cease moving. It’s an impressive technical design all around with double bonus points for the sound technicians/designers that miraculously figured out how to body mic a cast performing acts nature never intended to require such engineering. The results which could easily have been a sweaty, distracting, feedbacky (not to mention dangerous) mess, was nearly flawless. At any instant you could freeze the performance in its tracks and you’d have a gorgeous still to place on the walls of your carnival themed banquet hall. It’s a visual treat first and foremost.
Indeed, acrobats, jugglers, dancers, aerialists, contortionists, fire artists, magicians, comedians, (actors and singers too) all show up to amuse and delight in two acts and three or more rings, but you know who didn’t show up? Gravity. That sneaky diva was nowhere to be found. Consequently there was a plethora of science defying activity that admittedly was thrilling, but ever-so-nerve-wracking at the same time. It’s totally okay though, I did enough worrying for every single audience to come with regard to the entirely invisible or nonexistent safety nets/precautions. So yeah, you may all now enjoy it without any risk of palpitations or loss of consciousness, because I seriously have you covered in that arena. You’re welcome.
What we were denied with respect to gravity was made up for by metaphor which showed up in spades. Stages of our main protagonist’s spiritual journey are cleverly accompanied by parallel circus acts, but also with extensive choreography that is genuinely creative, fun and well executed. They did a really superior job of being detailed without graphic and specific without crossing the lines where exploration of more adult themes were concerned. Balance, being literal as well as metaphorical, certainly runs through all aspects of this piece.
Aside from all the oooh and ahhhh of this productions, highlights for me include the best performance by a man playing a sarcastic and emotional chicken. Ever. I’d seriously hire him to just do running commentary (or chickentary?) during my work day. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give an honorable mention to the character of Louis’ hair, which I‘m certain must have graduated from Julliard with its own hair acting bachelors. We also have two cast members in the ensemble who have some notoriety and were it not for the audience erupting into applause when they simply walked on stage (which I’m generally opposed to) I’d have been blissfully ignorant of their prior body of work in that moment. That being said the actress I would post show recognize primarily from the 1982 cult classic Swamp Thing and the actor who previously played Pippin on Broadway and now takes form as the brilliant Charlemagne, earned their “premature” applause within minutes. They were adorable, hilarious and fresh in their approaches; truly professional and chemically well matched with the rest of the cast. Across the principal cast and certainly present within the supporting ensemble, there are some lovely choices and layered characters being crafted that help make up for the fact that the show itself isn’t actually all that and a bag of popcorn.
Pippin in my opinion isn’t a perfect piece of theater by any means (Schwartz touches many similar themes and does a much better job in Godspell and Wicked to be honest) but it is undeniably entertaining with this talented, ridiculously hardworking cast and production team. They do a great job modernizing a play that is Bohemian at its core (one that can skirt the line of preachy a bit too closely for my tastes). There is enormous flexibility in the way this show can be produced and I will say the extreme big top circus adaptation is a cohesive vision that works and possibly creates the missing relevancy that 40 years since the shows debut could certainly fade.
The device of addressing the audience is one I’m a bit tired of personally, but this cast has a solid rapport with their viewers and nimbly navigate that tightrope between funny and obnoxious or trite. While a “journey to discover meaning and purpose in life” can certainly be categorized as a universal and relatable theme, it could also be totally esoteric, convoluted, and difficult to follow. Save the very end which feels a bit conflicted and unresolved, the rest was easy to comprehend and fun to watch.
It’s a strange little piece to be sure, but is succeeds in grabbing 4 out of 5 jewels in the review tiara for an exceptionally colorful evening of stunts, silliness, song and soul searching. Pippin plays through this Sunday, January 10th only a the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts