According to William Shakespeare, “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” But Pippin isn’t quite so simple, blurring the line between the illusion of entertainment and the cold truths of reality. In this modernized version of Bob Fosse’s 1972 hit musical, the stage for the show-within-a-show is now the center circus ring, bringing the audience under the big top to watch Pippin (Sam Lips) struggle to find his life’s purpose off the typical script.
The updated setting provides a rich visual tapestry and adds additional dark notes to the already nuanced themes of perception and fantasy. When the cast says they have magic to do in the opening number, they’re not kidding—the stage comes alive with acrobatics, aerial tricks, slight-of-hand, and more alongside choreography by Chet Walker, who keeps Fosse’s signature strut alive throughout the production. The flashy brilliance on stage does more than just dazzle, too. It plays to the strengths of the original show and helps to fill in the gaps where audiences might start to notice where the story itself wears a little thin.
Lisa Karlin took a surprise turn as the seductive, devilish Leading Player, replacing lead Sasha Allen on opening night. The role requires a true triple threat with a strong voice, a powerful presence, and liquid grace; Karlin is more than up to the challenge, commanding the audience’s attention every time she appears. She was especially good in the famous “Manson Trio” dance number during the song “Glory,” slinking across the stage to Fosse’s original choreography.
Tony-nominated actress Adrienne Barbeau is a crowd favorite as Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother, with the kind of warmth and presence that draws the audience in and yes, even gets them to sing along when the fourth wall is dropped. It’s hard to believe that the former scream queen and sitcom star is 70 years old as she drops her dowdy caftan to reveal a form-fitting corset and swings upside-down on a trapeze in the arms of a circus hunk. (Can we say “future life goals?”)
John Rubenstein, who originated the role of Pippin on Broadway in 1972, is a perfectly hammy delight as Pippin’s father King Charles, stomping and roaring his way across the boards with boundless energy and enjoyment. Sabrina Harper is sly and sexy as stepmother Fastrada, showing off miles of leg and plenty of sass to match as she connives for control of the kingdom with smarmy son Lewis (a handsome but lackluster Erik Altemus).
Lips tries his best to bring an aw-shucks, almost frenetic earnestness to the role of Pippin, but unfortunately doesn’t quite hit the mark. He is surrounded by strong singers and actors, and that only serves to highlight the weaknesses in his acting choices and the poor breath support and phrasing in his vocals. Lips does have a nice connection with Kristine Reese, who plays his leading lady Catherine. Her voice is strong, showy, and gorgeous, if a bit too reminiscent of Kristin Chenoweth at times, and together they make a quietly lovely pair as Pippin’s journey changes course.
All told, Pippin is a fitting end to Dallas Summer Musicals’ 75th anniversary season, bringing the kind of high production value that the Dallas theatergoing audience deserves. And it gives that audience something to think about as the lights go up — when the stage and its untrustworthy players are stripped bare of artifice, what’s left behind is the only truth.