‘Pippin’ spreads sunshine 

click to enlarge John Rubinstein, left, and Matthew James Thomas are excellent in “Pippin” onstage at the Golden Gate Theatre. - COURTESY TERRY SHAPIRO
  • COURTESY TERRY SHAPIRO
  • John Rubinstein, left, and Matthew James Thomas are excellent in “Pippin” onstage at the Golden Gate Theatre.
The opening tune of “Pippin” promises “Magic to Do,” and it’s nothing less than an understatement when describing the touring production of the show’s Tony Award-winning 2013 revival.

Onstage at the Golden Gate Theatre in The City, the thrilling new version of the 1972 musical by Roger O. Hirson (book) and Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics) is literally a circus, created by Gypsy Snider, who grew up in San Francisco’s Pickle Circus and is co-founder of the classy Montreal-based circus troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main (7 Fingers).

Setting aside the dark, haunting quality of the original, director Diane Paulus and Snider’s vision of a young prince’s journey to find meaning in life is packed with sassy, nearly nonstop, stunts — trapeze, aerial, balancing, juggling, climbing, tumbling, jump roping — executed seamlessly by nearly two dozen versatile performers, to Schwartz’s melodic, groovy, still appealing ’70s-era score.

At the same time, one of the show’s few quieter moments at the outset — when hero Pippin describes his quest to be extraordinary in one of the signature tunes, “Corner of the Sky” — is just as mesmerizing as the eye-popping movement.

Adorable, floppy and pliable, Matthew James Thomas, fresh from Broadway in the role, has an endearing naturalness and is pitch-perfect as the title character. John Rubinstein, who originated the part of Pippin in 1972, is back as Charles, Pippin’s dad. Sasha Allen (an alumna from TV’s “The Voice”) is sultry as the Leading Player, who narrates the story and commandingly breaks the fourth wall.

Working at breakneck speed, Sabrina Harper sings and displays fabulous dance moves (Bob Fosse-inspired choreography is by Chet Walker) as Pippin’s cunning stepmother, and Kristine Reese plays Pippin’s sweetheart Catherine with wit and grace.

Next to Thomas’ protagonist, Lucie Arnaz stands out most as Pippin’s grandmother, who leads the audience in the peppy singalong, “No Time at All.” The number is as amazing as it is charming; Arnaz matches her vocal and comic timing with spectacular physical feats that defy her near-senior citizen status — they’re a crazy surprise.

If there’s a downside, it’s a slight shortfall in momentum that doesn’t fully build emotion (which also may have to do with the fact that the best songs are in the first act). In any case, the pumped-up, extraordinary, 21st-century “Pippin” is on the right track.

REVIEW

Pippin

Where: Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 19

Tickets: $45 to $210

Contact: (888) 746-1799, www.shnsf.com

About The Author

Leslie Katz

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