The opening moments of “Pippin” are the most thrilling since the humans and beasts of “The Lion King” spilled down the aisles to the onstage savannah more than 15 years ago.
As the Leading Player of an acting troupe, all muscle and sinew and limb, sings of “Magic to Do,” the enormous black silk curtain behind her drops, revealing a fully outfitted circus in mid-performance under a striped big top.
Acrobats fly through hoops, trapeze artists swing, ripped men and slinky women slither up and down poles in skin-tight iridescent costumes, all suffusing the Music Box Theatre with color and energy and most of all, wonder.
Even more wondrously, those qualities never flag over the 2 1/2 hours that follow, as Pippin (Matthew James Thomas), the feckless elder son of empire-building Charlemagne, searches for meaning in his life.
This unlikely coming-of-age musical, set in those swinging Middle Ages, has been transformed by director Diane Paulus into a giddy-making pleasure machine. Assisting her is Les 7 Doigts de la Main, a Montreal-based circus company woven seamlessly into a cast of seasoned Broadway hoofers.
Indeed, the high point of the show comes in Act I, when the veteran trouper Andrea Martin, as Pippin’s wise grandmother Berthe, sings “No Time at All” from the stage and then from a trapeze swing where, to everyone’s utter amazement, she proves herself as limber and adept as her very young male partner. The audience is gasping when not singing along (the chorus only, she insists, eyes atwinkle: “The verse is mine”).
All of which is very fabulous if you’re 10 years old. This is not what Bob Fosse had in mind in 1972, when he turned Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson’s youthful commedia dell’arte musical into something darker, sexier, more mysterious and decidedly grown-up. At the time, Schwartz, who would go on to write many musicals, including the blockbuster “Wicked,” was known for the treacly, wide-eyed “Godspell.”
Pippin is frustrated in his search for a place in the world, for, as he sings, his “Corner of the Sky.” He doesn’t find it on the battlefield or the bedroom, or on the throne he temporarily occupies.
Fosse wrapped the story in a magic show to provide some distance and sex it up. He was a master of the seductive gesture -- a palm flash, the pelvic thrust -- and he loved sleaze. In his shows, whole companies would move in perfect synchrony as a pulsating, carnal organism.
Paulus’s “Pippin” is G-rated, frisky rather than sexy, the slick sweat of lust replaced by dazzling but vague innocence. That makes it a visual treat, but eye candy takes you only so far. And as “Matilda” demonstrates a few theaters away, kids “get” dark more than we give them credit for.
One can’t fault any of the components the director has assembled, from Chet Walker’s Fosse-inflected dances and Gypsy Snider’s circus creation to Scott Pask’s ever-morphing sets. Kenneth Posner’s dreamy lighting creates a constantly changing landscape, castle to battlefield to boudoir; Dominique Lemieux’s refulgent costumes flip out like so many playing cards.
Thomas has boyish charm, but Pippin hasn’t changed by the time he chooses to settle down at the closing.
As his parents, the appealing Terrence Mann and Charlotte d’Amboise struggle in two dimensions, as does Rachel Bay Jones as the single mom who wins Pippin’s heart.
Gorgeous Patina Miller, whose star quality shone through “Sister Act,” seems robotic here, another victim of the leeching of sex from the show.
There’s little here of what we need to feel in the gut from a musical. Only Andrea Martin’s open-hearted turn resonates long enough to transport us, however briefly, way beyond the razzle-dazzle.
At the Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com. Rating: ***1/2
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(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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