On Stage: Coming of Age

by Chuck Conconi

Lucie Arnaz delights in the National Theatre’s production of ‘Pippin.’ 

Lucie Arnaz as Berthe in the National Theatre's production of Pippin. (Photo by Terry Shapiro)

Lucie Arnaz as Berthe in the National Theatre’s production of Pippin. (Photo by Terry Shapiro)

Audiences of big Broadway musicals expect a show-stopping number, and in the revival of “Pippin,” now playing at the National Theatre, that expectation is fulfilled in a high flying stunt in a circus setting featuring Lucie Arnaz in the role of Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother.

It is a supporting role, but Arnaz (Lucy and Desi’s daughter) is a stellar presence, especially when the 62-year-old actress shuns her full-length royal, proper attire for the skimpy costume of a trapeze artist. It might be pointed out that she has a good body. In the strong hands of a hulking circus performer, she sings and performs several feet above the stage without a safety harness or a net. And she appears unfazed by what seems to be a death-defying routine, as if she has worked on a trapeze swing all her life. You can only hold your breath and admire her courage and trust in the muscular giant holding her.

“Pippin,” after a recent successful revival run on Broadway, is a “coming of age” story of Pippin, the son of Charlemagne. The musical has been reconfigured into a noisy, circus backdrop that will wow audiences across the country. It is a crowd-pleasing experience, even if the plot structure is thin and the music unmemorable.

The 1972 smash hit has been transformed into a breathless display of acrobatics seldom seen outside Vegas. All the action takes place inside a circus tent setting designed by Scott Pask. Chet Walker’s choreography, in the style of Bob Fosse, who directed and choreographed the original production, is much more athletic and requires the talents of several international circus performers and gymnasts, juggling, jumping through hoops and tossing beautiful girls across the stage.

Pippin, an appealing Kyle Dean Massey, is the academically-oriented son of Emperor Charlemagne. He has returned home determined to do something outstanding with his life, not unlike the ingénue in The Fantastics who prays, “Please God don’t let me be normal.” He tries to be a soldier, but doesn’t have the stomach for it and stumbles through other ideas. And then he meets a good woman who wants him to accept her, her son and the dull life of a gentleman farmer. He finds that unacceptable, but we won’t be surprised by his final decision.

That’s about it for a convoluted plot that only exists as a platform for Stephen Schwartz’s music and lyrics that echo the familiar sounds of the ’70s. Charlemagne and Pippin did exist and wrestled with the eternal royal conflict about who will succeed daddy. Any other relationship to those historic figures is nonexistent and unintentional.

The casting of veteran actor John Rubenstein as Charlemagne is inspired. He has a strong voice and a regal presence of the sometimes feckless monarch.One other standout performance is Sabrina Harper as Pippin’s ambitious step-mother Fastrada. She is an elegant dancer with a melodious voice and great legs.

The central character of the cast is Sasha Allen as the Leading Player. She is essentially the emcee, dressed all in black, who narrates the story directly to the audience, and at times she interacts with the players, correcting the performance when she determines they have strayed from the script. It is the role that is credited with making Ben Vereen a star. Allen performs with a stern demeanor and is not warm nor approachable. She does, however, have an exceptional voice and is a competent dancer.

The young “Pippin” cast is exuberant and inexhaustible, but for all the hard work, it is Arnaz’s star-turn performance that you take with you when you leave the theater. She is a consummate veteran who fulfills the reason she is in the show. Even when she is only part of the dancing and singing ensemble she stands out, and when she is given the spotlight, she knows what is expected and takes control of the stage.

“Pippin” continues through January 4, 2015 at the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Tickets are $48-$108 and available at 202-628-6161 or online here

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