NEW YORK — The last show to open this season on Broadway comes with plenty of bang, lots of flips and real value for money: A ticket buys you not just a musical but also a trip to the circus.
The American Repertory Theatre’s thrilling revival of that cultishly cute “Pippin” opened Thursday at the Music Box Theatre as a hybrid that surely will keep everyone thoroughly entertained.
Director Diane Paulus hasn’t just slapped some fresh paint on this beloved tale of self-discovery, she’s rebuilt it, apparently inspired by the opening number’s line “we’ve got magic to do.”
The musical, with songs by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Roger O. Hirson, is framed by a group of traveling players who tell the story of a young man named Pippin, the ninth-century emperor Charlemagne’s firstborn, who is looking for his place in the world. It wowed Broadway in the 1970s with Bob Fosse directing and Ben Vereen starring.
Paulus has transformed the players into a troupe of circus performers, and it’s a stroke of genius. It allows for a Big Top theme — think fire jugglers, teeterboards, knife throwing and contortionists — but also teases out the wandering nature of the mysterious players and zooms up the physicality of the story.
The Montreal-based Les 7 Doigts de la Main, a group known for mixing high-risk acrobatics, music and dance with the thrill of street performance, has been handed the circus duties. In retrospect, it’s as natural a collaboration as peanut butter and jelly.
Paulus, who has already thrilled with remakes of “Hair” and “Porgy and Bess,” scores again, making two very different companies work coherently. She’s also managed to tease out the connection between the intricate dance style of the late Fosse — Chet Walker choreographs this in the master’s style — with the equally meticulous needs of acrobatics. Both require tiny, precise movement.
The cast members are amazing and clearly have all been to the gym. No sooner have you realized that one actor is busy stealing the show than another steps up to blow you away.
Patina Miller, last on Broadway as the heroine of “Sister Act,” steps into the Vereen role of Leading Player. Miller looks as if she just walked off the set of “Tomb Raider” — she’s a triumphantly muscular, lithe creature with a hat and cane. Miller has got a manic grin on her face, sings with power and has a menacing air. She proves perfectly suited to Fosse’s complicated footwork and, unlike Vereen, does tricks on a trapeze while singing.
Terrence Mann plays Pippin’s manic father, and his real-life wife, Charlotte d’Amboise, plays his stage wife. This role gives d’Amboise the unusual vampy sexy role, which she nails with a hoot, and her husband gets to ride a unicycle and throw knives at her. (This must lead to some interesting conversations at home.)
Andrea Martin plays Pippin’s grandmother and sings the music hall favorite “No Time at All,” but the 66-year-old will be more remembered for doing jaw-dropping stunts that would make someone a fraction of her age blanch. She milks it all night, of course. But she deserves it.
Two up-and-comers play the central lovers — Rachel Bay Jones has great comedic chops but also adds a wistful tenderness to the part, and Matthew James Thomas, a one-time Peter Parker in “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” announces himself as a new Broadway leading man. He’s got the looks, the lungs and the abs, all of which the audience gets to enjoy multiple times.
Unfortunately for Thomas, his cool six-pack pales in comparison to the circus performers. Some of the women look as though they could arm-wrestle him into submission in seconds; one of the circus guys looks like He-Man.
They run around — and swing around — Scott Pask’s big top set, which has two poles and plenty of flaps for the hectic “Spamalot”-type action. One negative is that Dominique Lemieux’s costumes look a little muddled from far away, lacking some pop.
Even if you don’t want to hear one more rendition of “Corner of the Sky” or “Spread a Little Sunshine,” the Gypsy Snider-led acrobats will thrill you. One suspends himself horizontally from a pole, another balances on a tower of cans, still others bounce on six big yoga balls and one contorts herself into a human belt slung around another performer. A body-less head talks as part of a simple but funny theater trick, and a guy jumps through a hoop balanced on a girl’s nose — an extremely non-simple trick.
The genius of Paulus, though, is to know when to stop. For the penultimate tune, “Love Song,” only Pippin and his gal are on stage, a welcome show of quiet restraint that makes it a sweet moment. She knows when to pack up the circus tent.
So when the cast sings, by way of invitation in the opening number, “Join us, come and waste an hour or two,” it’s highly recommended you do so. Little can get the blood going this way.