'Pippin' at the Academy of Music: Revival is Brighter, harder, with dazzle

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In "Pippin" - at the Academy of Music through Sunday evening - Adrienne Barbeau straddles a trapeze (and a beefy trapeze artist) as Berthe, Pippin's grandmother.

In 1972, Pippin was all about the Fosse. With its 2013 Broadway revival, and, now, its national tour, currently hip-thrusting and somersaulting its way through the Academy of Music, it's all about Gypsy Snider's acrobatics and what stage magic director Diane Paulus has to do to keep Pippin popping for 21st-century audiences.

Snider, a founder of the Quebec circus troupe 7 Doigts de la Main (which has performed at two Philadelphia Fringe Festivals), provides the spectacle to dazzle audiences as well as Pippin, the purpose-challenged son of King Charlemagne (named Charles here), whose identity crisis leads him into battle, sex, rebellion, and, ultimately, compromise. Fans of the original, with its amoeba choreography, dell'arte sensibility, and Ben Vereen's coolly enticing Leading Player, will notice both a hardening at its center, and a brightening of its visual appeal all around.

Gabrielle McClinton's Leading Player directs the proceedings with the stern demeanor of a dominatrix, wearing black, thigh-high boots and rarely cracking a smile. She spent time in the Broadway revival, but she doesn't have the vocal power or physical precision of her predecessor, Patina Miller; she's adequate, not outstanding. But that's a small complaint, and alongside newcomer Brian Flores' endearing Pippin - more lost boy than hedonist - and the triple threat of Sabrina Harper's Fastrada, the ensemble heats up as it moves into its second act.

Of course, more than a few of Stephen Schwartz's lyrics confront the push-pull of adulthood and responsibility, and to that end, the tour has a formidable pair of elders. John Rubinstein, the actor who originated the role of Pippin way back when, dons the crown as Charles, and Adrienne Barbeau - Grease's first Rizzo on stage and Maude's divorced daughter, Carol, on TV - straddles a trapeze (and a beefy trapeze artist) as Berthe, Pippin's grandmother.

Considering the show's themes and its new ending, which I won't reveal here, there's a bittersweetness to seeing the baton passed from the formerly golden-curled, now snow-topped Rubinstein. As on Broadway, Berthe's number, the wistful favorite, "No Time at All," and her aerial routine remain showstoppers. If nothing else, this revival proves there are plenty of 70-ish actors out there who've still got it.

The other thing it may prove is that pretty packaging goes a long way. Pippin's tale really remains skin-deep. You might even argue that his journey is the least interesting thing about his story. It's the sights along the way that grabbed us (and him) with Bob Fosse at the helm, luring Pippin with caged orgies, serpentine bodies, and beckoning fingers, and now (aside from choreographer Chet Walker's pared-back approximation of Fosse's work) with brightly colored human jump ropes and tandem handstands. From Rubinstein fils to Rubinstein père, it's the same old story. It's just that these days, it takes a little more flash and a harder shove to get our attention.

Wendy_Rosenfield@yahoo.com

WendyRosenfield www.philly.com/philly/blogs/phillystage

THEATER REVIEW

Pippin

2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets.

Tickets: $20-$120.

Information: 215-893-1999 or www.KimmelCenter.org.