It might be time for me to break down and buy binoculars.
As it is, there are times at Starlight Theatre when it feels like I’m watching shows through the wrong end of a telescope. That’s how it was Tuesday at the opening night of “Pippin,” the touring version of the award-winning Stephen Schwartz musical fable about a young prince who wants to live an “exceptional” life.
This production, directed by Diane Paulus, claimed the 2013 Tony Award for best revival of a musical. It is conceived as tale told by a circus troupe, with the action unfolding within a big circus tent. Paulus, working with Montreal circus artist Gypsy Snider, incorporates some impressive acrobatics into the fabric of the production.
This show-within-a-show concept is smartly executed and the designers — Scott Pask (scenic), Kenneth Posner (lights) and Dominique Lemieux (costumes) — create an utterly beautiful stage environment. The whole thing is a seductive fantasy that would have worked beautifully in an intimate playhouse.
In New York, the revival played at the Music Box Theatre, one of the more intimate Broadway houses with a seating capacity of just more than 1,000. At Starlight, which seats almost 8,000, you sacrifice intimacy and nuance.
From my seat, about 15 rows from the stage, any subtleties in the actors’ facial expressions were imperceptible.
Still, it’s a colorful affair, filled with acerbic humor. The show has a quirky, fractured-fairytale quality. Pippin wanders through the world, learning the horrors of war, the depressing details of politics, the sacrifices required of real love.
The role, played well by Sam Lips, is a sort of Everyman — a kind of blank slate the audience gets to fill in.
It’s a logical approach, but there’s a problem — almost everyone else on stage is more interesting. John Rubinstein — the original “Pippin” on Broadway back in the day — has great fun as Charles, the king who recognizes that his son may be a little too mild-mannered to assume the reins of power.
Rubinstein is so effective that you inevitably wish Pippin could be half as entertaining.
“Pippin” requires an ensemble but the real star is Sasha Allen, who plays the Leading Player as a sort of “Cabaret” emcee remade as Catwoman. She’s a terrific singer, a fine dancer and her impressive charisma is the glue that holds the show together.
Adrienne Barbeau makes a crowd-pleasing appearance as Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother, and gets one of the show’s most infectious numbers — “No Time at All,” part of which she performs from a trapeze. Barbeau projects considerable charm.
Strong comic performances are registered by Sabrina Harper as Fastrada, Pippin’s glibly Machiavellian stepmother; Kristine Reese as Catherine, the young widow with whom Pippin lives for a time in Act. 2; and Erik Altemus as Lewis, Pippin’s dim-witted, war-hungry brother.
The concept for “Pippin” is considered “metatheatrical,” meaning that the creators go out of their way to show you that this is all make-believe, with no effort made to hide the artificiality of stagecraft.
Except in the case of “Pippin,” that isn’t strictly true. This show incorporates some illusions — including a couple of costume changes that occur in the bat of an eyelash — that are truly breathtaking.
Ultimately, the story dissolves into ambiguity, but the journey offers significant pleasure.