The spectacle is fantabulous, a fantasia of freak-show worthy contortionists, law-of-physics-defying acrobats and aerialists flying without a net. But for all its irresistible eye-candy, "Pippin" is also one of the most profound musicals around. Running through August 9 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, "Pippin" draws you in with its wild parade of jaw-dropping marvels. And then, somewhere between the gasp-inducing knife-throwing act and the fire-juggling giants, it makes you ponder nothing less than the very meaning of life.
The core question swirling through Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics) and Ron O. Hirson's (book) production involves what remains when the circus is gone. Shed your armour of daily showmanship and who are you? Give up your illusions, give away your possessions and who remains? And if fulfilment can't be found in shiny distractions and showy baubles, then where is it?
Directed to spellbinding effect by Diane Paulus and featuring pulsing, sensual, Fosse-inspired choreography by Chet Walker, "Pippin" is as perfect as musical theater productions get. Were they competing in the Olympics, the gymnasts and acro-dancers on stage would be collecting perfect 10s. Were they debating the nature of mortal existence with Aristotle, the players would hold their own and keep a coliseum-sized audience rapt.
Those players are a mix of history, fantasy and the sort of ordinary people you encounter every day (including the one in the mirror). Pippin (Sam Lips) is the son of the tyrannical King Charlemagne (John Rubinstein, a comical brute) and the stepson of the conniving Queen Fastrada (Sabrina Harper, serving up Lady Macbeth realness with a side of Jessica Rabbit). Pippin brims with idealism and zeal as he sets out to find his purpose, certain that he's destined for extraordinary things. His search includes orgies, warfare, murder, farming, and a surprisingly moving interlude with a duck.
Pippin's romp is orchestrated by the nameless Leading Player (Sasha Allen), a bewitching ring-master whose gleaming, vaudevillian razzle-dazzle comes with an undertow of evil. Sleek as a serpent's tooth, Allen is an enchantress, irresistible even when she's orchestrating horror.
Everyone in the seamless cast is excellent, but we'd be remiss id we didn't single out 1980s sexbomb Adrienne Barbeau for applause. As Pippin's grandmother, Barbeau belts out an irrepressible ode to seizing the day. "No Time At All" would be a showstopper even if Barbeau didn't deliver it while swinging around upside down on a trapeze, her legs draped around the considerable torso of a 100 percent Grade A Beefcake strongman.
Playing out on Tony-winning set designer Scott Pask's magnificent rendition of a circus tent and popping with Dominique Lemieux's fantastical costumes, "Pippin" is a gloriously gaudy meditation on life.
Schwartz's memorable score opens with "Magic to Do," a song that's also a teaser of the wonders to come. To quote that opening song, "leave your fields to flower." Do wha ever you must. But do not miss "Pippin."
"Pippin" continues through Sunday, August 9 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St. Tickets are $45-$120. For more information, go to broadwayinchicago.com/pippin.