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Watching Our Flings Be Flung: Pippin at the Playhouse Square (Cleveland)

Magic to Do: Pippin the Musical stopped by Cleveland's
Playhouse Theater during its current national tour
My spouse is huge into Broadway musicals, with her most favorite of them all being Pippin. The original 1972 production, centered around the title character's life as prince and heir in King Charlamagne's court, detailed his quests for his life's ultimate fulfillment. The ultimate failure of the prince's searches and his resultant feelings, mostly those of frustration and emptiness, were both channeled to the audience and cajoled by the Leading Player character (played originally by Ben Vereen) and his accompanying era-appropriate performance troupe members. The final act, after Pippin has failed to find his ultimate meaning in the fields of war, sex and politics, is spearheaded by the Leading Player and fellow troupe members. The group urged the prince to go out in an actual "blaze of glory" by flinging himself into a fiery pit, rather than "settle" for the mundane existence as head of a peasant family.

Despite mixed reviews, the play's derring-do helped fuel the play to a successful five-year run on Broadway. The original cast featured prominent names like Vereen, Jill Clayburgh, Irene Ryan (best known for her role in The Beverly Hillbillies), and John Rubinstein as Pippin. In addition, the play featured the choreography of the famed Bob Fosse, the financial backing of the Motown record label, as well as the tunes of multi-Grammy/Oscar/Tony-winning composer Stephen Schwartz.

The most recent Broadway production of Pippin, which took home four Tony Awards in 2013 (including Best Revival of a Musical), replaced the era-specific performance troupe with a more modern, Cirque du Soleil-type traveling circus. This aspect piqued my spouse's interest in the revival the most, and just added more reason to catch this play on its national tour.

While seeing the play was an easy decision, the decision of when to see it was more tricky: since no dates had been scheduled for Columbus for 2015, the choice for us came down to a possibly winter-weather laden trip in February in Cleveland or a summertime heat/humidity jaunt to Louisville, KY. We chose Cleveland in February and, suffice it to say, the weather was plain nasty on this Valentines Day, with single-digit temperatures, gusty winds and occasional whiteout conditions.

Vicious Valentines Day temperatures, snow and winds greeted us
as we made our way to the watch the play
Despite the rambunctious weather, we persevered and made it to the main parking garage for Playhouse Square. While many parking options, most of which are less expensive, do exist around the Square, we chose to purchase a pass to the main parking facility as an add-on with our tickets due to the possibility of bad weather. This turned out to be a golden decision, as the garage has a covered walkway all the way into the facility. Valet parking is also an option for those theater-goers who want to spend a few more bucks.

This visit was our first trip to Playhouse Square for both of us, and we were caught off guard a bit by the size of the facility. Emerging in 1921 and 1922 as a conglomeration of five theaters, Playhouse Square had its heyday fairly in their early decades of existence; however, the rise of television, incidents of vandalism and general neglect, and a fire at the Ohio Theater in 1964 led to plans by the theater owners to raze the buildings.

Thankfully, efforts spearheaded by educator-turned-historical-preservationist Ray Shepardson started in 1970 allowed the theaters to prove they were still viable as performing arts facilities. Since then, Playhouse Square has undergone extensive restoration and revival efforts that have transformed it into the largest performing arts complex in the United States outside of Lincoln Center in New York. The current facility now holds 11 theater stages and numerous shops and restaurants, and has become a major anchor in the ongoing revitalization of Cleveland's downtown area.

A panorama of sights both outside and inside the Connor Palace Theatre
The 2,800-seat Connor Palace Theatre (formerly Palace) Theater hosted Pippin for their run in Cleveland. Like Columbus' own collection of historic theaters, The Connor's architecture had its own distinctive elements (the one-time world's largest theater lobby, for instance) that makes a visit to any of these theaters a special, unique experience.

The play featured highlight performances from two of its most elderly cast members. John Rubinstein, who originated Pippin in the initial Broadway production, came full circle of sorts in playing Pippin's father for the national tour. Contrary to the serious demeanor of the original production, Rubinstein's played the role as a bit of goofy incompetent and brought a manic energy to the stage. His centerpiece came with his deft handling of the song proclaiming the glories of battle, "War Is A Science", including its rapid-fire, rap-like final verses.

The other obvious highlight was Priscilla Lopez's handling of Berthe, Pippin's paternal and rather randy grandmother. She played to the crowd in perhaps the most sing-along tune in the play ("No Time At All") and handled herself on the trapeze like few performers, 60-plus-years-old or otherwise, could do. Lopez drew a rousing response from the gathered right after her act as well as the loudest cheers during her curtain call.

As a fan of the play, my spouse thoroughly enjoyed this revival. She appreciated the elements that they did keep from the first production (for example, despite the new circus theme, they enhanced and paid homage to the original Fosse-created choreography) and really welcomed the appended ending involving Pippin's step-child Theo, as he became the new mark for the Leading Player and attending circus performers' attentions.

Inside the 2,800 seat Connor Palace before showtime
as well as a listing of the Pippin's cast.
As someone who is nowhere near the Broadway musical fan as my spouse (I have seen productions of A Chorus Line, Phantom of the Opera and Rent, but do not actively seek these shows out), I found Pippin a pretty fair experience that held my attention from beginning to end. For me, the songs (save for "No Time At All") were solid but didn't quite venture into super-memorable territory, and the second half of the play just doesn't quite have the energy of the first. However, the combo of amazing acrobatics and illusion, along with the solid cast (along with Lopez and Rubinstein, Sam Lips as Pippin and Sasha Allen as Leading Player gave strong performances) showed me why this play revival drew the rave reviews and praise that it did on Broadway.

Playhouse Square
1501 Euclid Ave
Cleveland, OH 44115
(216) 771-4444
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Pippin (U.S. Tour)
Next closest-distance shows to Columbus
Nashville, TN (6-hour drive): March 10 - 15, 2015, Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC)
Louisville, KY (3-hour drive): June 2 - 7, 2015, The Kentucky Center
Chicago, IL (5 1/2-hour drive): July 29 - August 8, 2015, Cadillac Palace Theatre
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