‘Pippin’ makes triumphant trek across the river

Borris York, Gabrielle McClinton and Matthew deGuzman in “Pippin.” Photo: Joan Marcus.

Borris York, Gabrielle McClinton and Matthew deGuzman in “Pippin.”  Photo: Joan Marcus.

BOSTON — When the curtain first went up at the American Repertory Theater’s production of “Pippin” in Cambridge in 2012, there was an audible gasp from the audience.

Were they in the wrong place? Had they stumbled into one of Cirque du Soleil’s ubiquitous productions?

No. It was “Pippin,” allright, but a “Pippin” with more “Magic to Do” than anyone could have imagined.

Now Boston’s Opera House is hosting the national tour of Diane Paulus’ Tony Award-winning revival of the musical about a young prince’s struggles in finding where he fits in the Holy Roman Empire dominated by his father, King Charlemagne, aka Charles The Great.

This “Pippin” remains an irresistible blend of magic, music and derring-do, a theatrical spectacle buoyed by Scott Pask’s Tony-nominated circus tent set and Chet Walker’s sexy, sizzling choreography in the style of the late Bob Fosse, replete with the tip of the hat, the dancers’ almost-impossible angles, and the sleek, athletic bodies.

Paulus upped the spectacle ante with the help of Gypsy Snider, the co-founder and co-creator of the Montreal-based troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main, who brought to the table jugglers with fiery torches , five-star acrobats and trapeze artists, and knife-throwers. All are also asked to sing and dance in the large production numbers, and they do it quite well.

The cast is replete with old pros who still have a lot left in the tank. John Rubinstein, who originated the role of Pippin on Broadway in 1972, returns decades later as Charlemagne , the king who seems to spend all of his time denying requests for money or going to war, which gives him a chance to sing “War is a Science.”

Adrienne Barbeau, now 70 years young, made her bones in her early years in TV situation comedies and later as a sex symbol in films, and here has a funny, touching turn as Berthe, Pippin’s lively, life-loving grandmother, who counsels him to live life to the fullest in the show-stopping tune “No Time at All” and joins enthusiastically in the circus-themed fun.

Sabrina Harper is Pippin’s slinky, sexy, scheming stepmother who has designs on putting her vacuous but mighty warrior son Lewis (Skyler Adams) on the throne, thereby removing any limits on her weekly allowance.

His wife’s spending spawns one of the play’s great lines from Rubinstein as Charles: “I wonder if the fornicating I’m getting is worth the fornicating I’m getting.”

The Leading Player is our narrator, our guide to the story, as well as the ringmaster of the circus that is at the heart of “Pippin.” Gabrielle McClinton takes charge in the role, strong, and athletic, a wonderful dancer/singer who delivers on her promises in “Magic To Do.”

Newcomer Brian Flores shows off his vocal chops in “Corner of the Sky” and imbues Pippin with the requisite wonderment, as well as his passion and thirst for adventure, and later cynicism when he is exposed to the horrors of war — including a hilarious, spirited debate with the head of of a dead enemy warrior — as well as the treatment of loyal subjects by Charlemagne.

Egged on by the Leading Player, Pippin is off on a quest to take out his father, an act that will leave him even unhappier when he finds being a king isn’t really for him, and he is forced to request the Leading Player to bring his father back to life.

There is an abrupt change in mood and tenor in the second act, when the Leading Player introduces – rather reluctantly – Catherine (Bradley Benjamin), a young widow who finds Pippin on the side of the road, takes him into her home and ministers to him. It isn’t long, though, until Pippin gets restive and introspective and again begins to ask himself if his life shouldn’t be “Extraordinary.”

In the end he must decided if his corner of the sky might just turn out to be a quiet estate in the country with a young widow and her son.

The good news is that the happy marriage of Roger O. Hirson’s funny, whimsical book and the music and lyrics of Stephen Schwartz (“Godspell,” “Wicked.”) survives intact, along with the other elements that made Paulus’ Cambridge and Broadway productions great, all having made the trip across the river to the Opera House.

The names on the marquee may have changed, but “Pippin” is true to those roots of both the 1972 original and Paulus’ newer vision.

The national tour of the American Repertory Theater’s production of “Pippin.” Book by Roger O. Hirson. Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Directed by Diane Paulus. Set design by Scott Pask. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner Costume design by Dominique Lemieux Choreography by Chet Walker in the style of Bob Fosse. At the Opera House, Boston through Feb. 14. http://www.broadwayinboston.com.