Pippin at the Pantages is an Amazing, Terrifying Metaphor for L.A. (GO!)

The touring cast of Pippin, now playing at the Pantages in Hollywood.EXPAND
The touring cast of Pippin, now playing at the Pantages in Hollywood.
Photo by Terry Shapiro

Pippin isn't just the name of one of the supporting hobbits in The Lord of the Rings. He was also Charlemagne's son, and the subject of Stephen Schwartz's 1972 musical of the same name. The show, which takes some liberties with the real-life story, frames Pippin as a bookish boy, determined to find total fulfillment — or, as he puts, it, his "corner of the sky." Director Diane Paulus staged a circus-influenced that which premiered on Broadway last year and is currently touring to the Pantages in Hollywood.

There's something hauntingly spot-on about seeing Pippin on tour, since the show is about a band of traveling performers who tell the same story every night. If the premise sounds a tad meta, that's because it is — the Leading Player (Sasha Allen) and other characters are constantly playing with the fourth wall, throwing meaningful looks to the audience. Paulus' production grabs the audience from the first song of the show, which reveals a vibrant visual cacophony of circus acts. 

Pippin is a coming-of-age story, following the prince as he searches for life's meaning in war, sex, power and ordinary life. While none of that is exactly novel, Schwartz's score and Paulus' innovative staging (complemented by the Cirque du Soleil-style acts, under the purview of Gypsy Snider) keep the story moving along a brisk pace — which is important in a nearly three-hour show. 

It helps that the cast is having buckets of fun. Matthew James Thomas is all bumbling earnestness as the title character, and though he's occasionally a tad flat, his voice really soars through the score's high notes, particularly the Act I closer "Morning Glow." He's nicely complemented by Allen's Leading Player, skulking in the shadows and manipulating events to frame the story her way. It's also a treat to see Andrea Martin, who won a Tony for the role in New York, return to the role of Berthe, Pippin's randy grandmother. Likewise, John Rubinstein, the original Pippin (and, full disclosure, a former professor of this writer) is delightful as Charlemagne, a casting choice that lends even greater significance to the show's finale.

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And what a finale! Here, Roger O. Hirson's book takes a pointed significance in the City of Angels. As the players entice Pippin to be completely fulfilled in the show's "one perfect act," it becomes clear that the players, dramatically lit by Kenneth Posner, are no angels — they're the demons that entice everyone in Los Angeles, promising magic and delivering something decidedly more dangerous. 

Therein lies the captivating power of Pippin. It reels you in with jaw-dropping circus acts, complex music and choreography (by Chet Walker in the style of Bob Fosse, the director of the original production), lush settings (by Scott Pask) and well-timed jokes, but there's a serious undercurrent to the experience that makes it mean something.

Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd; through Nov. 9. (800) 982-2787 HollywoodPantages.com.


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