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PIPPIN: A Faustian Story

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Adrienne Barbeau with Dr. Cliff Cunningham

The musical Pippin currently playing at the Broward Center in Ft. Lauderdale is an unusual pastiche of Cirque de Soliel, Monty Python and Cabaret.

With a thin plot based on the real historical figure of Charlemagne, his son Pippin and other family members, it was awarded a Tony Award in 2013 for Best Musical Revival (it began on Broadway in 1972).

But what is about, really? Veteran actor John Rubinstein originated the title role of Pippin in 1972, for which he won a Theatre World Award. In this touring production of 2015, he plays the figure of Charlemagne, who became the first Holy Roman Emperor in the year 800. Even though he did not do any historical research to play Charlemagne, he did offer me an insightful look into the world of the musical Pippin.

“It’s really a psychological drama, a Faustian story. It’s about a dark force in a person’s mind (Pippin) who wants to be extraordinary. He doesn’t succeed at politics. I liken it to President Obama’s situation- he was ready to do it, but walked into Washington and hit a brick wall.”

In the musical, Pippin is constantly surrounded by a troupe of circus performers who keep egging him on to do things. Eventually they promise the audience a finale they will remember for the rest of their lives. What they have in mind is for Pippin to jump into a fire and commit suicide on stage, but he shrinks from doing that.

“Is the play,” posits Rubinstein, “just a troupe of circus performers forcing him to kill himself at the end, or is it a story of a young man who has all this in his head? Are they, in fact, just demons of the mind, like the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth?”

On the lighter side, and certainly the highlight of the musical, was a command performance by the famous actress Adrienne Barbeau. She first shot to fame in 93 episodes of the TV show Maude (1972-78) and has since been in 25 movies. What is the most satisfying aspect of being in Pippin for her?

“It’s not often a role for a 70-year-old woman comes along where I can hang upside down from a trapeze and sing about a philosophy of life!”

I asked her if the philosophy she sang about was her philosophy. “Yes, I try to stay in the moment . As the character of Berthe says, there is nothing to be sure of. So I believe all we have is what is now.”

I also asked about the scariness of performing acrobatics high above the stage, since there is no safety net. “I don’t think about the danger of it. It never crossed my mind what I was getting into. I have no imagination!”

Sam Lips, centre, with Callan Bergmann in armour to his rightSam Lips, centre, with Callan Bergmann in armour to his rightThe energy of the cast is extraordinary, with both the eye and ear constantly kept in thrall by what is happening on stage. For some in the audience, it was not enough. One noted theatre critic in the audience told me Pippin in one of the few musicals he does not like, and he thought that while Sam Lips, who plays Pippin, is cute, he just didn’t seem right for the role. Another audience member, who saw the Broadway production, tended to agree, saying the acting aspect of the Pippin role was better done on Broadway (I thought Lips did a fine job in a very demanding role). He also told me that Sabrina Harper, who plays Fastrada, is superior to the actress who appeared on Broadway. I will add my kudos to Lisa Karlin, whose saucy portrayal of the “Leading Player” added immensely to the spark of the musical.

Callan Bergmann did a great job with his effeminate, preening portrayal of the half-brother of Pippin. He is also an understudy for the role of Pippin, and has done that lead role during the current touring production which began last August.

I asked him which role he preferred. “I like Lewis, because Lewis is over-the-top. It’s just really fun to be him. I’m more like Pippin in real life, so when I play him I don’t have to work as hard. But when I play Lewis I really get to be dramatic. So it’s hard to choose.”

Bergmann describes himself as a “quadruple threat: singing, acting, dancing and gymnastics. In this show I get to do everything.”

Pippin, the Musical, will be at the Broward Center until April 12, 2015. Visit the website for tickets: www.browardcenter.org.

Photo of Ms. Barbeau and Dr. Cunningham by John Rubinstein; Photo of the musical cast by Martha Rial

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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