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Theater Review: "Pippin" at the National Theatre

There's a lot to like in this visually dazzling Broadway revival.

Photograph courtesy of the National Theatre.

There is a lot of excitement and fun in this revival of the 1970s hit Broadway musical. But it loses energy in the second act.

It is hard to imagine a more winning combination—sexy Fosse choreography, Cirque du Soleil-like acrobatics, a tuneful Stephen Schwartz score, a tongue-in-cheek book, and stunning performances by both theatrical old hands Lucie Arnaz and John Rubenstein and talented newcomers Sasha Allen and Kyle Dean Massey.

The production has sex, war, and rock ‘n’ roll. Add magical illusions and dazzling special effects, and it is easy to see why Pippin won the 2013 Tony Award as the best musical revival.

The story itself is a slender scaffold upon which to hang so much activity. The title character, Pippin, is the son of King Charlemagne, who rules over the Holy Roman Empire. The lad is in search of a greater destiny than merely succeeding to his father’s throne.

His search for the true meaning of life leads him through battles, orgies, and a brief experiment in patricide. These graphic and beautifully choreographed pursuits should deter parents from bringing their young children to see this production. Try explaining what the scantily clad threesome is doing in the cage and why the lady in black has a whip.

Pippin (Massey) is accompanied on his journey by a helpful coach and narrator called simply Lead Player (Allen). He is affecting, athletic, and sweet of voice; she is an electric performer. Both are destined for greater things.

Two veterans more than hold their own against younger talent. Lucie Arnaz plays Pippin’s grandmother, Berthe. She has one blockbuster number and makes the most of it—she sings, she dances, she flies on a trapeze, and she stops the show.

John Rubenstein was the original Pippin in 1972. Now he plays King Charles with vigor, and brazens through a tongue-twisting, hurricane-speed number that would challenge performers of any age.

Pippin—both character and production—both slow down in act two, when our hero succumbs to the allures of ordinary life. Where is Grandma in sequins when we really need her? Still, there were plenty of dazzling stunts and visual fireworks to delight the audience and the promise of a youngster about to begin his own search for greatness.

Pippin is at the National Theatre until January 4. Running time is about two hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. Tickets ($48 to $93) are available online.