Rarely has danger felt less dangerous than in the touring version of “Pippin” that opened Tuesday in Shea’s Performing Arts Center.
This circus-inspired revival of the 1972 show, whose creators promised a foreboding new take on Stephen Schwartz and Bob Fosse’s already dark original, instead delivers a beautifully choreographed cartoon brimming with mirth where it ought to brood with mystery.
It’s not until the very end of the production, in which the circus tent dissolves to reveal the wires and pulleys of the theater, that this road-ready version of Diane Paulus’ popular revival seems to finally communicate the full weight of its existential message. And by then, it’s too late.
The story, such as it is, revolves around a young prince whose journey of self-discovery seems to presage and mirror all the tendencies we’ve come to associate with millennials: How to reconcile the core belief in one’s unique and special abilities with a world that seems outwardly indifferent to you and your perceived problems?
In 1972, the simplicity of the story – the very blank-slate-ness of it – provided the perfect opportunity for a visionary director like Fosse to project upon it his own peculiarly cynical mood and sensibility. And so he did, by painting the protagonist’s impossible optimism against a stark backdrop of mystery and darkness, a black hole always threatening to pull Pippin in and the audience with him.
In this production, Paulus’ approach seemed very smart on paper. In turning the roving and mysterious group of actors who perform Pippin’s story into a touring circus, the shock-and-awe spectacle of Cirque du Soleil-inspired feats of physical ability would seem perfectly natural and bring an added layer of danger to the already unsettling proceedings.
Instead, at least in this version, the impressive acrobatics and magic tricks devised by choreographers Chet Walker and Gypsy Snider most often serve to lighten the mood to the point where the vapidity of the story comes into full view. For that reason, like “Star Wars,” the revival is likely to register more with nostalgic fans of the original production than newcomers, who will likely be hard-pressed to find the appeal of the show beyond its surface-level style.
There are exceptions, of course. Fosse’s famous “Manson Trio” dance toward the beginning of the show benefits from the application of a few simple circus motifs rather than the full-on visual assault of the opening number. The great Priscilla Lopez’s remarkable acrobatic performance of “No Time at All” is the hands-down highlight of the night, as she delivers gasp-inducing tricks on a precariously high swing all while belting out a song about living life to the fullest. At age 67.
As the title character, Brian Flores is endearing – a paragon of feckless optimism slowly ground down by the contradictions and grim realities of life. Bradley Banjamin’s performance as Catherine is a great comic accomplishment, accented by a lovely performance of “Kind of Woman” in the second act. And the circus-savvy performers in the show, among them Keven Langlois Boucher, Roman Khayrullin and Nico Maffey, execute their moves with astounding grace.
Even so, while the performers shine and the choreography seduces, the darkness that made “Pippin” popular in the first place has been brightened a few too many shades. As a result, like a photo with too much flash, the story and the experience come out overexposed.
2.5 stars (out of four)
When: Through Jan. 31
Where: Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St.
Tickets: $30 to $75
Info: 847-1410 or sheas.org