A strong first act leaves a heavy burden on the second
Director Diane Paulus’ Broadway hit musical Pippin came out with a bang in its opening performance at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. Boasting songs from the composer of Wicked and complete with a just plain steamy cast of incredibly athletic and daring men and women, “Leading Player” Sasha Allen (you know her from NBC’s The Voice) starts the show of right in her sexy, skin-tight black ringmaster’s suit.
Written by Roger Hirson, Pippin the musical tells the story of a young man named Pippin, played here by Sam Lips, who is beginning his journey into adulthood, in a desperate search for an extraordinary life, his special “corner of the sky.” After trying his hand (not very successfully, mind you) at military life, ruling, participating in free love, and music making, among other escapades, Pippin is still left feeling “empty and vacant.” He then finds himself where many of us do when we’re feeling this way — in the arms of a single, hot lover.
Throughout Act I, Pippin is filled with some of the most amusing and buoyant singing, dancing, and ridiculously thrilling acrobatics TPAC has ever seen. Nearly every scene is packed with brightly colored, circus-inspired costumes that the audience can barely focus on as the actors perform strenuous, death-defying gymnastics. With the crescendo of rotating-hip choreography, the awe-inspiring single-hand balancing acts and even a human jump rope, the audience is relieved to sit back and rest in their seats when Pippin’s outcast grandmother, Berthe, played by the truly inspirational Priscilla Lopez, enters the scene.
But as the Leading Player tells the audience, “You ain’t seen nothing yet, folks!!”
As Berthe encourages Pippin to “start livin’!” she proceeds to astound the audience into a standing ovation with her incredible physical abilities and lack of inhibitions, showing Pippin exactly how it’s done.
And then . . . Act II, where the performance hall’s laughter and mesmerizing, wide-eyed on-looking slowly fades away. Hirson’s story reveals what it is suffering from even at the start, something many of us can truly relate to — an identity crisis. Part comedy, part tragedy, part love story, with a confusing element of storytelling within the story, Act II just doesn’t succeed at camouflaging the plot issues in the same robust way Act I does.
As Sasha Allen’s character puts it in her last tantrum — without the glamour of the stage lights, costumes, makeup, and the big top set, all the razzle-dazzle really is gone, leaving us to wonder if the “ordinary life,” or in this case story, with which we’re left really is one that we want.
Pippin, winner of four 2013 Tony awards, including “Best Musical Revival,” is playing at TPAC’s Andrew Jackson Hall March 10-15, 2015. Tickets can be purchased at the TPAC box office or at www.tpac.org.