NEW YORK — There are shows that revive aging material through revisionism. And there are productions that prefer to celebrate the pull of nostalgia, especially when the songs are great. "Pippin," the brilliant Diane Paulus revival of the fantastically playful musical by Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson, with a special place in the theater-loving hearts of many, somehow combines the best of those two approaches, at once re-energizing this 40-year-old musical with freshness, vitality and eye-popping exuberance without ever making it feel like the crucial sweetness and naivete of the piece has been undermined or exploited.
That truly dazzling feat of theatrical alchemy — which required respect, delicacy and guts — has resulted in far and away the best musical production of the current Broadway season and a "Pippin" that will make you afraid of ever seeing it again thereafter, lest the sheer joy of what transpires at the Music Box Theatre is compromised.
Yet more remarkably, director Paulus has achieved all this by setting the show inside a circus tent — a big top that, in Scott Pask's shrewdly semi-obscuring design, seems to reach far into its own corner of the sky. Such a conceit less than original — countless productions of "Godspell" have done the same thing — and that entire aesthetic of sad-faced clowns and juggling Players has so many traps, it could swallow elephants. But Paulus was smart enough not merely to cast actors with bags of movement tricks, but rather to essentially hire a real circus that could live and breathe inside her Broadway parade. By collaborating with Gypsy Snider of the Montreal-based troupe 7 Doigts de La Main (whose show, "Traces" was a huge hit in Chicago), Paulus has ensured that "Pippin" is filled with breathtaking feats of daring do, as promised by its Leading Player, here vivaciously dramatized by Patina Miller, who is just welcoming enough and just sufficiently intimidating. The rhetorical promises of this Brechtian character so rarely come to pass with your average "Pippin." Here, they roar thrillingly to life.
But she's not the star of this particular circus, folks. In this coming-of-age story about the naive son of Charlemagne, the star attraction is its tone. "Pippin," written at the long-vanished moment when the purveyors of mainstream entertainment were experimenting with the techniques of epic theater, has to be sweet enough that its off-beat, faux-Brechtian story can function and its gentle, irony-free songs — the gorgeously melodic but deceptively tricky likes of "Morning Glow," "Magic to Do" and "Love Song" — do not seem forced.
On the other hand, it is no longer 1972. Whatever innocence was claimable then is only absurd now. And thus Paulus' cast does not take itself too seriously, making some deft detours into the Pythonesque. And Terrence Mann's Charlemagne/Charles effectively cuts the syrup. The Second City veteran Andrea Martin, who plays the grandmotherly role of Berthe, even takes to the trapeze — daringly, it feels. There, the strong men of the circus set her up to thrive. Such carefully protected moments of exuberant creativity show up all night.
The choreographer, Chet Walker, has to wrestle with the Bob Fosse legacy and his work here really is quite a remarkable fusion, especially given the way the usual dancing ensemble has to make room for a circus. Even with the compromises of diminished ranks, Walker manages to pay homage to Fosse in many of the most emotionally startling moments and yet chart his own course. Aside from Miller, who dazzles throughout, Walker's key asset is Charlotte d'Amboise, whose work pulses with technique and, better yet, the feeling of a dancer beating back her own mortality. It's an inestimably clever blend of Broadway tradition, old-fashioned sentiment and raw risk, an apt metaphor for a show that somehow manages to feel relaxed and natural while keeping the stakes high and the pace of thrills very 2013.
As Pippin, the handsome British actor Matthew James Thomas steps out the most, musically — moving in the Justin Bieber direction, you might say. It jars initially but Thomas has some stellar acting chops that unspool in Act 2, when he connects deeply with Rachel Bay Jones' quirky, resonant Catherine, a character who comes off here as pained, weary, hopeful and intensely sympathetic.
This "Pippin" has fire, trapezes, as much flipping and tumbling as has ever been contained within a Broadway musical, and yet Paulus and Snider know when to quiet everything down, leaving a young man trying to understand love, fatherhood and the possibilities of self-discovery, set to a hummable tune.
"Pippin" plays on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St., New York. Call 212-239-6200 or visit PippintheMusical.com.
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