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'Pippin' brings big-top wonders to Hollywood Pantages

'Pippin' brings big-top wonders to Hollywood Pantages
Sasha Allen, second from left, is the Leading Player of a troupe in “Pippin,” now at Hollywood Pantages. (Terry Shapiro)

"Pippin," the Tony-winning revival that transformed Roger O. Hirson and Stephen Schwartz's musical into a circus theatrical, has pitched its tent at the Hollywood Pantages, and it has been quite a while since this majestic old theater has held so much delicious wonder.

The acrobatic choreography has sexily-clad performers whooshing through the air, shimmying up poles and dangling from ropes like Barnum & Bailey burlesque artists. But even more breathtaking is the feat of musical theater reinvention that director Diane Paulus has pulled off with her daredevil ensemble.

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For those wanting the highs of Cirque du Soleil with the heart and pizzazz of Broadway, this is the show you've been waiting for.

I never saw the still-running Broadway revival, but this first-class touring production has helped me get over my allergy to the musical's hokey material. Paulus' Tony-winning staging doesn't simply pulse with verve--it draws out the emotional color of this storybook tale, nominally set in the Middle Ages, of a young prince's misguided quest for fulfillment in a life of glory.

Matthew James Thomas, who played Pippin in the New York production, brings an enchanting innocence and tireless physicality to the role of the young royal. Andrea Martin, who won a Tony for playing Pippin's frisky grandmother, deserves every second of the standing ovation that erupts after her sensational scene, an unforgettable addition to this comic actor's illustrious stage and screen career.

Sasha Allen, who made a splash on season four of NBC's "The Voice," plays the Leading Player of the mysterious metatheatrical troupe that dares Pippin to dream big and dangerously. Her powerful, smoky hued pipes are more than enough to compensate for some swallowed lyrics and fuzzy theatrical command.

John Rubinstein, who originated the title role in the 1972 Broadway production of "Pippin," is a rascally delight as Pippin's father, Charlemagne, king of the Holy Roman Empire. Sabrina Harper makes the most comically and vocally of the villainous Fastrada, Pippin's stepmother, who wants her war-mongering nitwit son, Lewis (Callan Bergmann), to be next in line to the throne.

Kristine Reese makes a lovably loose Catherine, the attractive widow who coaxes Pippin to settle down on her farm with her and her son, Theo (Lucas Schultz, who was marvelous at Wednesday's reviewed performance, alternates in the role with Zachary Mackiewicz).

It is through Catherine's romantic wiles that Pippin, a peppier version of Peer Gynt, realizes that the answer to the emptiness he feels isn't in distant lands but in the daily miracle of the home he has created. And how could anyone leave with such a playful menagerie of hens and pigs (marvelously portrayed by humans) enlivening the chores with their chorus of clucks and grunts?

"Pippin" was made famous by Bob Fosse's signature 1972 magic act staging, etched in my memory from the television commercial (featuring Ben Vereen, flanked by mimes) for the long-running Broadway production.

The musical is beloved by the piano bar crowd but often frowned upon by critics. (I sometimes think that if I could retrieve the hours spent listening to drunken men tearfully warble "Corner of the Sky," my spirit would run free like the song's rambling rivers and flying eagles.)

"Pippin," in short, is the kind of work that needs directorial collaboration, and Paulus has discovered in her circus concept what Fosse found in his conjuring vaudeville—a complementary vision that makes the work seem whole.

The artistic director of the American Repertory Theater, where this revival was launched, Paulus is a stylish populist whose success depends in large part on the pliancy of the theatrical material. (Her springy revival of "Hair" worked better than her aggressive reshaping of "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess.") "Pippin," hardly a sacrosanct piece of dramatic construction, was made for her.

What most impressed me was the synergy her staging obtained between Chet Walker's Fosse-indebted choreography and the Circus Creation of Gypsy Snider of Les 7 doigts de la main. This was a completely integrated production, with spectacle working in tandem with story.

Scott Pask's sets, Kenneth Posner's lighting, Dominque Lemieux's costumes seamlessly blend the Big Top milieu with a winkingly theatrical take on the Middle Ages. Nadia DiGiallonardo's musical supervision elicits a lush orchestral sound, though lyrics occasionally get lost in the murky amplification.

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The promise of the show's opening number "Magic to Do" was lived up to with Houdini-esque virtuosity. "Pippin" was a show that inspired teens from the 1970s to pursue the dream of singing and dancing on Broadway. This entrancing revival will no doubt inspire a new generation to do the same. Don't miss it.

Follow me on Twitter: @CharlesMcNulty

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'Pippin'

Where: Hollywood Pantages, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-

Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 9.

Tickets: Start at $25

Info: http://www.Hollywood

Pantages.com, (800) 982-2787

Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes

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