The cast of <i>Pippin</i>
The cast of Pippin
(© Joan Marcus)
There are so many magical doings onstage at the Music Box Theater in Diane Paulus' superlative staging of the 1972 musical Pippin, you often don't know where to look. Gorgeous tumblers and hoop jumpers compete for our attention with stunning dancers. There's a fake duck one minute and a real dog the next. And let's not forget a troupe of thespians so talented — and so determined to steal the spotlight from their costars — they practically beg for applause while singing Stephen Schwartz's ultra-tuneful score, perhaps the finest he's penned in his 40-year career.

But the real magic here is how Paulus actually makes us care about Pippin (an ideally cast Matthew James Thomas), the eldest son of the power-hungry King Charlemagne, who is vainly searching for his goal in life. Never before (including in the show's landmark original Broadway production) has Roger O. Hirson's gossamer book about a callow young man actually seemed so substantial. In fact, it is often easy to forget that Pippin is actually nothing more than a character in a show-within-a-show — envisioned here by Paulus as an under-the-big-top spectacle overseen by the fierce Leading Player (expertly embodied by former Sister Act star Patina Miller).

There are a few moments when the acrobatic goings-on, created by Gypsy Snider of Canada's Les 7 doigts de le main and executed by such nimble performers as Orion Griffiths and Grégory Arsenal, don't quite gel with the show's Bob Fosse-inspired choreography by Chet Walker. (Only the "Manson Trio" section of the song "Glory" is actually Fosse's original work.) The two styles don't so much clash at times as merely compete.

But when everything comes together in its fresh and fantastic new way, as in the eye-filling "Magic to Do" or the ultrajoyous "No Time at All" (led by the larcenous and shockingly spry Andrea Martin), there is nothing quite like it currently on Broadway. As for the promised finale "you'll never forget," Paulus finds her own way of making the show's ending sufficiently memorable.

In addition to Martin's not-your-average-granny bit (almost sure to get her a Tony Award), one of Paulus' brightest achievements is her reconception of Catherine, the widow with whom Pippin takes up during the show's often dullish second act. Played here by the funny-yet-touching Rachel Bay Jones, Catherine is more wizened than winsome, adding another dimension to what is often an all-too-conventional love story.

Viewers in the know will also get a kick out of the pairing of real-life spouses Terrence Mann — who is wonderful as the slyer-than-he-seems Charlemagne — and Charlotte d'Amboise as his scheming wife, Fastrada. She executes the difficult dance solo in "Spread a Little Sunshine" with expected aplomb, but is a little short in the sex-appeal department, and her vocalizing is a tad shrill.

Thomas, whose previous Broadway gig was as alternate Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, brings both a fresh-faced innocence and a sweet-yet-confident singing voice to the role. (He handles the show's most famous anthem, "Corner of the Sky," particularly well.) Even better is Miller, who bursts forth with a supple blend of sizzle, strength, and sinew. She has those far-from-easy Fosse moves down pat, and navigates tricky songs like "Simple Joys" with effortlessness. In fact, she and Thomas practically bring the crowd to their feet mid-show with "On the Right Track."

In its own way, Pippin will always be a piece of its time — a reminder of what mattered most to theatergoers in the anti-war, me-generation 1970s — but Paulus' crowd-thrilling, award-worthy production is likely to keep audiences flocking to see it for years to come.