‘Pippin’: Catch the magic while it’s in Cambridge

Patina Miller in Magic to Do" in the American Repertory Theater's production of "Pippin." Photo: Michael J. Lutch.

Patina Miller in “Magic to Do” in the American Repertory Theater’s production of “Pippin.” Photo: Michael J. Lutch.

CAMBRIDGE — What is magic but theater that ups the ante when it comes to creating an illusion?
So the decision by American Reperoty Theatre artistic director Diane Paulus to combine jaw-dropping Cirque du Soleil-quality feats of strength and derring-do, juggling and other circus arts, and first-rate illusions with theatrical magic in the ART’s production of “Pippin” seems certain to succeed — to a point.
Forty years after it was first produced on Broadway, Paulus has reimagined the work, which features a book by Roger O. Hirson, music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked”), and choreography by the inimitable Bob Fosse.
“Pippin” opens under a gorgeous a sky-blue circus big top in the show-stopping opening number “Magic to Do.” Our guide to the events of the evening — and a very active interlocutor she is — is Patina Miller as the Leading Player, in the role made famous by Ben Vereen 40 years ago.
Miller can and does do it all, from a soulful soft shoe to advising Pippin on what’s missing in his life in “Simple Joys.”
Pippin was, of course, the eldest son of Charlemagne. In real life, he was hardly a star, banished by his father after a failed attempt to take the throne.
In the hands of Matthew James Thomas, he is a gentle lost soul — seeking his “Corner of the Sky,” where he can become someone extraordinary, instead of being lost in the shadow of his father, the all-powerful conqueror and Holy Roman Emperor.
Terrence Mann’s Charles is an impetuous monarch, sending petitioners who offend him off to be hanged on a whim, but in Mann’s skilled hands he is fully realized in his number “War is a Science.”
Charlotte d’Amboise is Pippin’s steamy stepmother, Fastrada, who threatens to spend Charles into oblivion while harboring dreams of removing both Charles and/or Pippin while elevating her son Lewis to her throne
Pippin goes off to war with Charles and his half-brother Lewis and finds killing, raping and pillaging isn’t his thing — the disconnect becomes clear to him while talking to the displaced head of a slain Visigoth warrior, another bit of theatrical magic.
Andrea Martin has been stopping shows for years — think her deranged turn in “Betty’s Summer Vacation” at the Huntington — and here is she is Berthe, Pippin’s randy grandmother who advises him to seek the comforts of the fairer sex.
There are several surprises afoot in her rendition of “No Time at All” which will delight you.
Pippin eventually becomes soured on the whole idea of what Charles is doing in the name of being the Holy Roman Emperor. He leads a revolution and kills his father, but in his naiveté he doesn’t realize keeping an empire afloat often requires putting ethics and morals on hold.
The Leading Player allows him a do-ever, and with Charlemagne alive again , Pippin is free again to pursue his destiny.
If “Pippin” has a fault, it is that a dazzling 80-minute first act sets the bar almost impossibly high for the second act. Pippin finds himself called into a relationship during the Ordinary Life segment , and the production finds its heart and soul in Pippin’s romance with the widow Catherine (Rachel Bay Jones) and his interaction with her son Theo (Andrew Cekala), but the derring-do and magic vanish, and like a sugar junkie whose cookie and cake are taken away, we find ourselves longing after a short while for the sweets. Even the grand finale is intentionally not-so-grand.
The production values from the team Paulus has assembled are top-notch, from the opening-scene starry-blue circus big top complete with trapeze created by set designer Scott Pask, to lighting designer Kenneth Posner’s breathtaking greenscape and soaring reds of battle, this “Pippin” is a treat for the eyes and ears.
The circus creations of Gipsy Snider of the Montreal-based circus troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main have been seamlessly integrated into the production, and everyone in the cast has some kind of magic to perform.
Paul Kieve’s illusions include Charlemagne’s now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t casket and a well-crafted knife-throwing scene.
The choreography by Chet Walker in the style of the late Bob Fosse retains the essential Fosse elements, from the precise tip of a hat to Miller’s vigorous solo. Perhaps if he were alive today, Fosse — a great appreciator of athleticism and strength — would even appreciate the elements added by the various acrobats and contortionists.
The music by the orchestra led by Charlie Alterman is in perfect balance with the vocals; not a word or a note is lost, a tribute to the ART’s resident sound designer Clive Goodwin.
After more than a month of honing on the Loeb Drama Center stage, this “Pippin” will close Jan. 20 and head to Broadway for the engagement due to open on March 23 in the Music Box Theatre in New York City.
The second act loses steam, but there is more than enough magic with Paulus’ vision, Miller and Martin to justify a visit. See it now or pay a lot more for the same privilege on Broadway.
The American Repertory Theatre’s production of “Pippin.” Book by Roger O. Hirson, Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Directed by Diane Paulus At the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge, through Jan. 20. http://www.amrep.org.