Lawrence Toppman

‘Pippin:’ Magical, yes, and yet...

The circus-style revival of “Pippin” has reached Charlotte.
The circus-style revival of “Pippin” has reached Charlotte. Terry Shapiro

Let’s see if the national tour of “Pippin” yields all it promises in its opening number:

“We’ve got magic to do, just for you.” No question. The corpse that levitates and disappears from under a shroud, disembodied legs that move furniture – fascinating stuff.

“We’ve got miracle plays to play.” Yes, indeed. The Cirque du Soleil-style stunts stop the show. (Literally so in the case of rolla bolla master Dmitrious Bistrevsky, who balances atop a tower of quivering cylinders to begin Act 2.)

“We’ve got parts to perform.” And well done, too. The cast is uniformly strong, and Lisa Karlin stepped into the role of Leading Player at Belk Theater to deliver a frighteningly intense performance. (She took over the role for two weeks when star Sasha Allen injured herself.)

“Hearts to warm.” Well, no. Not until the final scene do we feel invested in the title character or care about his journey to become “completely fulfilled,” which has gone on for 21/2 hours and finally taken him past war and a grab for power to a chance at lasting love.

“Kings and things to take by storm, as we go along our way.” In the end, “storm” may be the right word for the show, which crackles with energy throughout. Director Diane Paulus, who won a Tony for her work on this revival, and choreographer Chet Walker (who pays sly homage to Bob Fosse’s 1972 production) give us the old razzle-dazzle. But as with any circus, only the visual effects linger in memory after the glitter settles.

In Roger O. Hirson’s simple book, Pippin goes home after college to live with his dad. Papa happens to be Charlemagne, ruler of much of western Europe, so his son expects a glorious life. The Leading Player encourages the boy’s follies, trying to lead him toward a different finale than the one he eventually wants.

Each supporting role has been cast from strength. John Rubinstein makes a cheerfully infantile Charlemagne (no more mature than his son, really). Sabrina Harper slithers sinuously as conniving stepmom Fastrada, and Adrienne Barbeau – still lissome three weeks short of her 70th birthday – steals the show as Pippin’s grandma by singing “No Time At All” while dangling by the ankles from an acrobat on a trapeze.

I didn’t always take to Kristine Reese’s chirpy Catherine, Pippin’s love interest – she often seemed to channel Kristin Chenoweth’s Glinda from “Wicked” – but it fit the overall tone. Kyle Dean Massey’s Pippin begins with earnest enthusiasm and moves toward something deeper; he manages against all odds to make quiet moments count in Stephen Schwartz’s witty, touching score.

Those odds are sometimes high. He delivers the delicate “With You” next to two men who do extended handstands on posts, supporting themselves on one arm and entwining the others without toppling. I couldn’t take my eyes off them, but wait – was somebody singing?

I imagine Fosse would applaud the extended bisexual orgy in “Morning Glow” and the suggestion that Lewis, Fastrada’s son, is a mama-fixated gay man concealing his nature as a macho warrior. (Callan Bergmann handled this thankless role well. Poor guy doesn’t even get a song.)

He’d also have liked the revival’s unsentimental nature. Actors break the invisible “fourth wall” more than in the first Broadway version, if memory serves: We’re always reminded we’re watching actors pretend to have emotions. But perhaps even that depressed, jaded cynic might have let in a bit more emotion.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘Pippin’

The national tour of the Tony-winning musical revival features Stephen Schwartz’s songs and circus-style presentation.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6 p.m. Sunday.

WHERE: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.

TICKETS: $20-$124.50.

DETAILS: 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org.

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