04/25/2013 08:26 pm ET | Updated Jun 25, 2013

First Nighter: Diane Paulus's Pippin Flies Through the Air With the Greatest of Ease

Diane Paulus has so many tricks up her sleeve it could pass for a cornucopia. She showered them on audiences when she jiggled A Midsummer Night's Dream into The Donkey Show and transferred it from Cambridge to New York City's and West Chelsea's Gogo Nightclub, and when she lifted Karen Armitage on board her Hair revival to galvanize the acting tribe. Granted she tightened the strings on her tricks bag for last year's Porgy and Bess -- make that, The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, although many would say the Gershwins didn't have enough to do with it.

All the same, she's now looked at the Bob Fosse-Stephen Schwartz-Roger O. Hirson Pippin and concluded that if she teamed with ex-Fosse dancer Chet Walker to choreograph as well as joined with circus-trained Broadway vets and circus performers hot to trot across Broadway stages, she could fashion a doozy of a circus-centric enterprise.

And don't you know, she's made her mid-spring night's dream come true with the invaluable help of Scott Pask's big-tent set, Dominique Lemieux's electric rainbow costumes, Kenneth Posner's kaleidoscope lighting, the Jonathan Deans-Garth Helm sound design, Paul Kieve's illusions, ZFX, Inc.'s flying rigs and Chic Silber's fire effects.

In Chicago, Fosse had Fred Ebb and John Kander explain the power of giving 'em the old razzle-dazzle, and Paulus has taken that dictum to heart with her American Repertory Theater production -- at least for the length of her first act, if not her second, about which more later.

For those who don't know -- and many of us don't or have forgotten -- Pippin (Matthew James Thomas) is a semi-historical figure, the son of Charlemagne, here called Charles (Terrence Mann). As Hirson imagines the young lad, who's the hero of a tale told by this circus's Leading Player (Patina Miller), he's uncertain what he wants to do with his life while being fairly certain he doesn't want to follow in his father's footsteps. Pippin also doesn't much care that stepmother Fastrada (Charlotte d'Amboise) is pushing Hotspur-like son Lewis (Erik Altemus) to fill the throne he's turned up his nose at.

The premise -- which allows for a series of vignettes during which Pippin tries out various happy-making schemes that don't make him happy -- plays right into Paulus's humming-bird-swift hands. Just as she did in treating Shakespeare's comedy any old way she pleased, she uses Hirson's lay-out simply as a series of opportunities for staging exhilarating circus number after exhilarating circus number.

And choreographer Baker likewise seizes the chance to elaborate fancifully and eye-poppingly on the Fosse signature steps and gestures. One turn he keeps intact is Fosse's "Manson Trio" in the middle of the "Glory" sequence, and how wise he is to do so. Oh, how the American musical misses Bob Fosse!

The manner in which all the three-ring stuff plays out is infinitely rewarding during the first-act, although maybe the highpoint of the colorful gymnastics -- balancing acts, leaps through hoops, you-name-it -- is the one involving Andrea Martin. She's in the role of advice-giving grandma Berthe that Irene Ryan did so memorably. After singing "No Time at All," wherein she advises Pippin to live in the moment, Martin tears off her royal shmatta and, in glamorous tights, becomes part of an aerial performance that Ryan was never asked to do. It's a wowser, and the audience treats it as such.

Sad to say, those infinitely rewarding first-act moments become thuddingly finite in the second act, when Hirson didn't really know where to send Pippin on his finding-himself mission. This is also where Paulus finally reaches into that commodious tote and comes up empty-handed.

What transpires during part of this stretch is that Pippin meets widow Catherine (Rachel Bay Jones) and her acting-up nine-year-old son Theo (Andrew Cekala, also played by Ashton Woerz). Their interplay, carried out amid other flailing forays by Pippin, has Hirson eventually resorting to the stale notion that happiness lies in one's own backyard -- or, in this case, in a down-home backyard where one has had some quiet loving exchanges. To make Pippin recognize this, the creators, following Hirson's script, must turn on their circus metaphor. Suddenly, it's the mad, distracting world, and the Leading Player is its Lucifer.

Good grief, why did Hirson, Fosse et al strain for a moral lesson when so much of what's going on has been sheer fun? Certainly, it is here. Thomas's Pippin not only sings with a young man's heart but also shows off unexpected terpsichorean skills. Miller's abilities are repeatedly unfurled, especially when she's asked to carry out those instantly recognizable Fosse contractions?

D'Amboise is mesmerizing when intoning the cynical "Spread a Little Sunshine" and backing up her advice with sizzling movement. Mann supplements his amusingly demented monarch by juggling. Jones floats her boop-a-doop voice seductively. Acrobats like wedge-haired Philip Rosenberg flip and flap like pancakes tossed hot off the griddle.

The ending Paulus doesn't choose to futz with, as is her frequent wont, is the one now recognized as official and slightly different from the 1972 fade-out. This one does include a final twist that won't be revealed here but maybe adds -- though not for me -- some forgiving irony, a hint of cynicism. Also, note that the original production played without intermission. Perhaps this one, if tightened, should, too.

Schwartz's lark-y score deserves further comment. The composer-lyricist -- who at one time had three shows running simultaneously on Broadway (Pippin, Godspell, The Magic Show) -- introduced a number of clever tunes for the Fosse project. He was immensely helped in establishing them by the original cast album, which was the first released by Motown, when label founder Berry Gordy Jr. decided he needed to diversify.

Investing in the show in order to land the LP, Gordy went about protecting his investment by having Michael Jackson record "Corner of the Sky" and The Supremes wax "I Guess I'll Miss the Man," which isn't reprised in Paulus's version. By the way, not a one of Schwartz's ditties is included a block north in Motown: The Musical.

But hey, here the musical is, sufficiently gussied up to speak, sing, dance and soar through the air for itself.