Borris York, Lisa Karlin & Mark Burrell in Pippin.
Photo- Terry Shapiro



Book by Roger O. Hirson
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Circus choreography & acrobatics by Chet Walker & Gypsy Snider
Directed by Diane Paulus

Review by Kathi E. B. Ellis

Entire contents copyright © 2015 by Kathi E. B. Ellis. All rights reserved

The 1972 and 2013 Tony Award-winning musical “Pippin” is the Broadway Series’ season closer at the Kentucky Center this week. And what an exhilarating way to end a season!  Diane Paulus’ re-conception of the Schwartz-Hirson-Fosse musical is a spectacle that delivers heart and dazzle in equal measure. This version’s fierce choreography is by Chet Walker and is credited ‘in the style of’ Fosse.

From the first reveal of the circus tent – garnering a predictable but deserved round of applause – to the final deconstruction of the story within a story within a story, the opening night audience was delighted throughout; and, throughout, each element of the production supported every other element.  The circus performances and magic sequences, worthy of their own production, are here seamlessly integrated into music, dance, and text, catapulting the already metaperformative text into hyper drive. The cast bios read like a “who’s who” listing of training programs for circus, physical theatre, and acrobatic genres, expertise that is deftly and impressively utilized in this production.

The original Pippin is couched as a group of touring players putting on a play about the actual, though highly fictionalized, son of Emperor Charlemagne. The dialogue overtly addresses those actors who are new, old, not following the script, etc. so that the audience is continuously reminded they are observing a performance. With the inclusion of acrobatic acts and magic tricks, this distancing is heightened – and Tuesday’s audience oohed and aahed in appreciation and apprehension at these moments. Yet the sure hand of the director and strong choices of the performers also allow the human moments to come through: the young man not sure what to do with his life; the awkwardness in father/son communication; Grandma talking about sex; a couple realizing that there is something between them.

The Player, Lisa Karlin, (replacing Sasha Allen for the Louisville engagement) struts commandingly about her ring/stage, kings and commoners alike under her authoritative persona as the MC/Narrator. Karlin holds the Whitney audience in the palm of her hand, most especially in Fosse’s “Manson Trio” (danced with Borris York and Mark Burrell) during which you could have heard a pin drop. Sam Lips is excellent as Pippin; his bio states that he understudied this role on Broadway, and this long exposure to Pippin is evident in his nuanced characterization. As with all of the ‘characters’, Lipps manages to be both larger than life and emotionally true, and his voice soars effortlessly into the higher ranges. The sure simplicity of the production’s signature number, “Corner of the Sky”, coming in the first scene, brought the audience firmly into Pippin’s world.

John Rubinstein, who originated the role of Pippin on Broadway, returns to the musical as Pippin’s father, Charles (yet another layering of the metaperformative aspects of this production). By turns pompous, childish, and malleable, his death scene brought an unsettled quietness to the audience as the reality of death pierced the ‘performance’ – until we were brought back into the circus world with an unexpected illusion that shattered this momentary reality. Adrienne Barbeau almost steals the show as Pippin’s grandmother, Berthe.  “No Time At All”, positioned to be a delightful audience sing along (provided the audience follows Berthe’s instructions!), also became a paean to maturing gracefully, and with a love for adventure and new experiences – who wouldn’t love grandma to be a trapeze artist?  Sabrina Harper as stepmother Fastrada, conveys the attributes that we expect in this stock character and carries off her fabulous costumes with devastating aplomb (with plaudits to the sleight of hand costume changes in “Spread a Little Sunshine”!). Kristine Reese’s Catherine effectively navigates the tension between her character’s ‘role’ and the emotions that the plot brings up for her. Tuesday’s Theo (Stephen Sayegh; Jake Berman at other productions) was appropriately bratty at times, and brought a hush to the audience in the appended ending, which emphasizes the universality and cyclical nature of our dreams.

The production values pay a winking homage to some of the original 1972 production’s ideas while simultaneously being entirely modern. The costumes (by Dominique Lemieux) embody the bold colors and patterns of the circus and vaudeville: a nod towards the Medieval period – the soldiers’ armor in “Glory” being deliciously anachronistic – and those of the widow’s farmyard denizens generated much hilarity from the audience. Kenneth Posner’s elegant, nuanced lighting – bridging circus spectacle and delicate emotional weight – is some of the most entrancing seen in Broadway Series’ productions in several years. The world of the big top is beautifully realized in Scott Pask’s design, and Paul Keive’s illusions baffled the audience time and again.

In the week leading up to this year’s Tony Awards, it was a wonderful tribute to the enduring appeal of the American Musical to see a two-time Tony-winning production (Pippin won for both its original iteration and the current revival, now touring) which, in this version also garnered a Tony for director Paulus, only the third woman to win this award. That one of the actors, Rubinstein, was in both versions also emphasizes the continuity between 1972 and 2015.


June 2 – 7, 2015

PNC Broadway In Louisville
Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40204


kathi e.b. ellis headshot color[box_light]Kathi E.B. Ellis is a member of the Lincoln Center and Chicago Directors’ Labs and an associate member of the Stage Directors & Choreographers Society. She has attended the LaMama Directing Symposium in Umbria, Italy, and is featured in Southern Artisty, an online registry of outstanding Southern Artists.  Her directing work has been recognized with nominations for the South Florida Theatre Carbonell Award.  Locally, Kathi is a member of Looking for Lilith Theatre Company, a founding principal of StageLab theatre training studio, and is part of ShoeString Productions an informal producing collective. She has written book reviews and articles for Southern Theatre, the quarterly publication of the Southeastern Theatre Conference, and was a contributing writer for JCPS’ textbook for the 11th grade Arts and Humanities survey course and for YouthArts Tapestry, a Kentucky Arts Council publication.[/box_light]