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Theater Fri Jul 31 2015

Step Right Up and See Pippin @ Cadillac Palace Theatre

Pippin opened up this week at the Cadillac Palace Theatre to a full house of enthusiastic fans ready to celebrate the 32nd longest running Broadway play and enjoy the iconic figures portrayed in it. There was quite a lot of kerfuffle over the charming Josh Rubinstein appearing as Charles, since he was the original Pippin in 1972. But Adrienne Barbeau brought down the house with her grandmotherly spunk, especially when she whipped off her Queenly garments to reveal the trapeze artist costume beneath and took to the trapeze with ease with partner Kevin Langlois Boucher just before orchestrating a giant sing-along with the audience. Not bad for a woman in her 70s.

The show began with the Lead Player played by a radiant Sasha Allen and a roving band of circus performers and actors offering to tell us a story about the young Prince Pippin. He arrives on the scene, newly graduated from college, ready to make an impression on the world, but also wanting something in return--a sense of fulfillment from his actions. He longs to live a meaningful life, and the Lead Player is happy to help him explore his options in the usual tempting ways, such as trying out war, partying a lot, and overthrowing his tyrannical father's rule. Pippin never quite finds his calling and he ends up stuck on a farm for a while, helping out a widow and her son. But he isn't ready to return to the demands of being a prince.

The show was full of exuberant female roles, starting with Sasha Allen as a powerful ringmaster/Lead Player, belting out her tunes, glorifying war with a little soft shoe number, and exerting diabolical amounts of effort to corrupt Pippin. Kristine Reese as Catherine was the perfect foil to those plans, playing a sweet, sometimes comical, sometimes earnest young widow with an estate to run and a long suffering love for Pippin. Sabrina Harper as Fastrada, the vixen-like egotistical stepmother posing as an average housewife, was hilarious, and of course Adrienne Barbeau was charming in the role of a loving grandmother espousing adventure.

Josh Rubinstein as Charles and Erik Altemus as Lewis played their personas with great buffoonery, and Sam Lips was perfect for the part of Pippin, a versatile performer who was wonderfully fresh and open, enabling us to follow him lightly on his quest.

Pippin originated in the 1970s, a time when experiment in the arts was embraced as it is currently, and questioning the status quo in search of a higher meaning was a common theme. Although the coming-of-age story is timeless, this revival of Pippin is especially suited to the times. Setting it in a circus tent among a troupe of players who are not only actors but circus performers was a bold and impressive move. It was not lost on the appreciative audience who could be heard collectively sighing and gasping at times, such as during a powerful spotlight moment on rola bola with Dmitrious Bistrevsky.

There were times when circus integrated seamlessly and cleverly with the story, such as in act two during the sex scene between Catherine and Pippin. They were beneath the covers wrestling about, while outside the covers a partner acrobatic number was used to symbolically illustrate their maneuvers. On other occasions, though, the circus felt crammed on to the stage, as if circus choregrapher Gypsy Snider knew she only had so much time and wanted to squeeze in every conceivable type of act. If that is the case, she nearly succeeded, as the whole gamut of traditional circus arts was on display throughout the show with ground acts ranging from contortion and acrobatics to hand balancing and aerial arts like silks, lyra, trapeze and Chinese pole.

It may seem odd to dwell on circus in the production, as it is not central to the plot, but what differentiates this version of Pippin from the others is the incorporation of circus acts in the numbers. Still, circus is rarely used inclusively in the scenes as part of the story or to illustrate an important action as the dancing and singing often are. There was a noticeable line drawn between the players (even among the dancers, singers and circus artists) and the main characters--lending the production a slightly hierarchical tone. A more integrated circus/theater production might have cast individuals who were equally accomplished in circus arts, theater, dance and music and thus capable of seamlessly blending all of the arts in to the performance of the larger roles.

Such performers do exist--as with Chicago's own Lookingglass Theater's production of Lookingglass Alice. Still, there were notable occasions where crossover occurred and in each case the audience was thrilled to see it. For example, when the charming Sam Lips/Pippin took to the Chinese Pole for a dramatic escape, or when Josh Rubinstein/Charles had a stint of knife throwing, and as previously mentioned, when Adrienne Barbeau /Berthe wowed everyone on duo trapeze.

Although effort was made to have the theatrical cast members participate in circus, not many speaking parts extended to the circus artist's roles, making circus more of a feature in this production than a major force in it, in spite of the frequent presence and the impressive skill level of each circus artist. It is nonetheless a triumph that circus appeared on Broadway and its equivalent venues, and proved itself to be a noteworthy art form emerging from the American consciousness. The audience reacted with genuine awe to the feats that were performed, creating a level of suspense and energy that couldn't be conveyed by dancing, singing or acting alone, and thereby enriching the production overall.

One of the most intriguing ideas behind the simple quest plot of Pippin is that the play is not presented as a straight story, but rather as a story inside of a story, a device that allows the cast to break down the fourth wall quite often to comic effect. In the end, the other three walls are removed too, as the Lead Player demands the players tear down the circus tent to remove the glamor and glitz from Pippin's life, leaving him exposed to bare reality. She hopes he will reject that plainness for a life of running away with the circus instead, but he is tired, older and wizened from his journey. It is difficult to say if he is simply growing up or selling out, but it infuriates the Lead Player and her crew, who know only that 'the show must go on'. They encourage Pippin to make the finale spectacular by tossing himself into a flaming pit as a sacrifice--making the ultimate meaningful gesture. But Pippin chooses a more practical sacrifice, that of abandoning his ego for the higher purpose of love.

There are familiar philosophical echoes of the Faust and Buddha stories in Pippin's existential dilemma, lending a depth that seems as if it should be incongruous with the tone of burlesque satire in the show. But in the end it works as a farce, showing each of us that we are not as alone as we feel, and that there is something both poetic and ridiculous about being compelled to make meaning out of the pieces of the puzzle we each hold.

Ultimately, director Diane Paulus and circus creator Gypsy Snider's innovative and modern reinvention of Pippin is made for the times, with an apt audience ripe to explore the meaning of existence and its subsequent temptations with circus, song, dance, drama and an multi-talented cast.

Pippin will be at the Cadillac Palace Theatre at 151 W. Randolph until August 9. Tickets range from $35 to $120. The production runs 2 hours and 35 minutes with one intermission.

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Kiggy / August 1, 2015 10:13 PM

I agree with a lot of what some of the critics mention in their thoughtful analysis about the performance itself. Picture it - a group of eager theater goers who heard nothing but hype and excitement about a dynamic, energetic and entertaining (can't forget Tony-award-winning) musical decides to be a part of the thrill by making a trip to the Cadillac Palace to see what all of the commotion is about on a Saturday afternoon matinee (August 1). Unfortunately, after the performance and to our dismay - we are still waiting.

It really started with my disappointment with not seeing Sasha Allen - I was very much looking forward to her performance. Instead, we received an understudy - which I understand happens often. HOWEVER, one would hope that an understudy takes advantage of the opportunity provided to (in this case) her when presented. Instead, I found myself struggling with her character in the first 5 minutes of her opening number. Very entertaining, but only as a magic artist and actual "entertainer" - very deficient in acting and overall performance - she almost became one dimensional with her character focusing on powerful ranged notes and a coercive laugh that was more of what you would hear coming from a Walt Disney villain than a multi-dimensional lead actress in a major performance. This became consistent throughout the remainder of the musical - although I thought she realized her character more in Act II.

The other (major - and probably the biggest) issue that my group and I had was the character, Pippin, himself. Echoing much of what Chris Jones points out, for us, Pippin never really became the Pippin character we had read about or even hoped for - rather he became a guy who happened to be named Sam Lips who happened to be on a stage and did his best to be Pippin. Sometimes when you attend a performance, "someone from the audience" is asked to come up to the stage and seamlessly they just happen to fit right into the routine without missing a beat. Instead, we experienced the exact OPPOSITE - in this case, Sam Lips became the every-day-audience member we all perceive as actually being invited up to the stage - awkward - very one dimensional - lost and unsure in the moment - and lacking authenticity, understanding and a genuineness of the character. In addition, not only was his voice flat many times throughout his performance (people's eyes were cringing), but we felt he leaned on his boyish looks too much to actually portray the true character of Pippin. I could also tell that we weren't the only ones feeling this way based upon the lack of applause for several of his moments throughout the musical as well as his bow at the end - which dissipated quickly without building up to a crescendo like with the many other actors/characters. Don't get me wrong, it was amazing to see how much the lead character had to retain in this production (he was in practically almost every scene) - but when you can place a talented high school actor in the same spot resulting in a similar performance, it becomes almost unfair to the rest of the cast of this scale and magnitude.

While the issues I mentioned left me disappointed and further prevented me from loving this musical (and even recommending it to friends and family) - I will say that the silver lining (or saving grace) was the troupe who performed stellar and outstanding acrobatic moves and magical talents - NOT to mention the extraordinary performances of both John L. and Adrienne B. BRAVO!

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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