REVIEW: Walton Arts Center’s “Pippin” a high-flying spectacle of conflicting (and conflicted) emotions

Photo by Shinobu Okazaki / Courtesy Walton Arts Center

Pippin’s onstage introduction took place as he leapt through a hula hoop and presented himself to a cheering crowd.

His exit from the stage two and a half hours later was much more demure, as he simply walked off under the glow of unadulterated light.

What happens in between is sometimes wonderful, sometimes confounding, but always beautifully choreographed, at least.

The national tour of the Tony Award-winning musical “Pippin” kicks off what Walton Arts Center president and chief executive officer Peter Lane called the venue’s “hard hat season.” Construction rages outside the Dickson Street building, but inside the building was familiar and cozy. “Welcome back,” Lane told the audience while wearing a hard hat just before the curtains rose. The show continues through Sunday (Nov. 15) at the Walton Arts Center.

Pippin, played in this instance by Brian Flores, is crown prince of a medieval kingdom led by his father, King Charles, also known as Charlemagne. But Pippin’s ascendance to the throne is far from guaranteed, least of all by his father, played by Broadway and television veteran John Rubinstein, who originated the role of Pippin on Broadway when the musical debuted in 1972. The show, with the book from Roger O. Hirson and music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, was revived on Broadway in 2013 after another of Schwartz’s works, “Wicked,” renewed interest in his work. Many of the cast members who started with the revival have made the transition to the touring production and are in Fayetteville for this run of shows.

Charlemagne instead prefers Lewis (Erik Altemus) and his war-loving ways over the book smarts of the just-back-from-college Pippin. That succession plan is also the hope of the king’s wife, Fastrada (Sabrina Harper), who tells the audience more than once she’s “just a simple housewife.” A simple housewife who may or may not have simultaneous romantic notions for father and son, so long as she remains spoiled.

Photo by Shinobu Okazaki / Courtesy Walton Arts Center

These characters are stirred into motion by The Leading Player (Gabrielle McClinton), who tears through theater’s fourth wall as the show begins and tears through many of the tropes of modern theater along the course of the evening. She’s joined in her silliness by a group of acrobats and magicians known collectively as the players. As she guides – or maybe manipulates? – Pippin on his quest for meaning, the players augment the world with bright colors, beautiful bodies and stunning abilities. There are literal hints of magic in the show – levitating bodies, disappearances and quick-change costuming. Hoops and trapezes and poles appear often in the show, and the players use them for climbing, jumping, spinning, twirling and dancing. Even without any such circus elements, the musical would already be considered a marvel of choreography. With them, the dancing and other feats of full-body strength are the current production’s most compelling element.

That’s not to take away from individual performances, particularly those from Flores, McClinton and Adrienne Barbeau, a stage and television fixture with credits such as “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Grease” on Broadway and the small screen’s “Maude” to her name. Barbeau has the role of Berthe, the designated scene-stealer role in the style of Teen Angel from “Grease.” “Pippin” will also likely remind you of other early- to mid-1970s works, too, not the least of which is “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” and not just because of never-ending quests and men wearing chain mail suits. The style of the silly humor present in “Pippin” is a fart joke or two short of mirroring the Python tone completely. Or vice versa, considering “Pippin” predates “Grail” by a few years.
“Pippin” is very funny. Unfortunately, “Pippin” doesn’t possess the kind of knockout, singalong, remember-them-forever songs present in “Grease.”

“Pippin,” even as it drew plentiful laughs from the children and adults present at Tuesday night’s mostly full show, is not just silly. On the same night as an actual presidential debate for the 2016 election, “Pippin” delved into political drama, including those stemming from familial ties. Sounds familiar, some 1,200 years removed from the actual rule of Charlemagne.

And it’s certainly not a show without even edgier moments. Sex is suggested at several turns, even during a gorgeously framed battle scene with all onstage characters draped in urgent and hostile red light. Sex shows up again often, most notably during a full-cast orgy which like many of the sequences of “Pippin” were highly stylized but plenty suggestive.

Style inhabits every moment of the current run of “Pippin,” from the costumes to the choreography to the meta storytelling devices. Taken as a whole, style wins over substance this round. I left happily baffled in wondering how the cast pulled off some of the magic and acrobatic tricks. I left less-happily baffled about what I’m supposed to take away or learn from the show.

After a few more hours of contemplation and writing, I’ve decided it’s maybe this – you can simply enjoy looking at a pretty picture, right?