By Melissa Groth
Pippin is a story about something we can all relate to, told in an extraordinary manner. Originally at the Kennedy Center in the 1970s before it went to Broadway, the play is back in D.C. at the National Theatre to tell the story of a young man on a quest to discover meaning and fulfillment. The title character is tormented by his need to be exceptional and his inability to express it. He tries many things in order to feel fulfilled, including war, sex, and peasant revolt. Yes, peasant revolt. Pippin is the son of Charlemagne, and the play rotates between life in medieval times and more modern life in the circus. Something of a play within a play, or a circus within a play, the circus element comes to represent the part of Pippin that would give anything for that feeling of fulfillment, even if it only lasts a moment. In the end he must choose if that moment is worth it, or if a simpler life without the flash and the fame is the better way to live.
This multiple award winning reproduction of the 1972 musical features Hollywood royalty Lucie Arnaz as Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother. Arnaz is stunning at 63, giving the players a run for their acrobatics during her song “No Time at All” in which she tries to convince Pippin to stop thinking so much and to just live. A surprise wardrobe change midway through her number had the audience cheering. Gorgeous, funny, and younger than her years, Arnaz is a sensation.
Of course, the whole production is sensational. The acrobatics will leave you with your jaw on the ground. Flips through hoops, balancing acts, trapeze, and incredible gymnastic feats make it hard to choose where to look when all the players are onstage. I found myself forgetting that sometimes I had no idea what was going on plot-wise, because I was so entertained, stunned, mystified by the spectacle. There just isn’t time to flesh out certain plot details between full-cast acrobatic dance numbers, and there isn’t time as an audience member to think too much about anything without risking missing some incredible backflip or sharp-witted dialogue. Some parts of the plot seem to fall by the wayside or else are wrapped up unceremoniously. Additionally, the interaction between characters occasionally occurs on a sort of metaphysical level which can make it difficult to reconcile exactly what the relationship of the play within the play is to the play itself.
Sasha Allen, finalist on The Voice, is the Lead Player, a charismatic, somewhat conniving, embodiment of the flashy side of Pippin’s inclinations to fame. Allen is a treasure and excels in this role. Her voice will take your breath away as she sings about glory during the battle sequence inspired by the Vietnam war. She is so much fun to watch. With a sly twinkle in her eye, she portrays the warm temptation of a life in the spotlight, but with the perfect amount of sinister undertone that indicates what Pippin might be in for if he chooses that kind of life.
John Rubinstein, who played Pippin in the original 1972 Broadway production, is crass and hilarious as Charles: horny old man, and Pippin’s father. Sabrina Harper plays his bombshell wife, Pippin’s stepmother, Fastrada. Her relationship with her son Lewis, played by Callan Bergmann, is heavily Oedipal, but the characters are so over the top it’d probably be more shocking if it weren’t. Bergmann is a riot as Lewis; just about as fabulous as a soldier can be. All of the characters are rich and fantastic, except maybe for Pippin himself, who insists on his on exceptionality, but is quite plain in comparison. Kyle Dean Massey is convincing as the charming, doofy, earnest yet sometimes prickish Pippin. Flawed, unsure of himself in moments, susceptible to pressure, real and relatable, Massey’s Pippin is a contrast to the rest of the cast, but not so much that he’s boring.
Set design and costuming are also spectacular. Everything on the set is climbed up, swung from, or jumped through. The costumes are flashy, racy, beautiful ensembles of shimmery, brightly colored fabric that change quickly and without warning. I’m talking split-second costume changes here.
Racy and funny, with plenty of surprises, jaw-dropping gravity-defying moments, quick-witted dialogue, illusions, tricks, and contortion, plus strong characters, stronger voices, and a theme that is totally relatable despite the magic and fantasy its covered in, Pippin is a powerhouse production. Overwhelmingly entertaining from beginning to end; if Pippin still doesn’t feel fulfilled by the end, you will anyway.