Diane Paulus's ingenious circus revamp of Pippin is indeed a magic to-do. The American Repertory Theater-generated, Broadway-bound revival floats a starry Big Top over the self-consciously theatrical 1972 musical by Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson, then fills it with acrobatic feats of derring-do. One almost forgets that Pippin, which in its original incarnation ran for almost five years on Broadway but has not been there since, is a flimsier precursor to Avenue Q, set not on Sesame Street but in a faux Middle Ages, where the whiny eldest son of Charlemagne sets out to find his purpose.
Believe me, this is as fabulous as Pippin will ever get. You know that from the get-go, when the extreme circus artists who round out the show's terrific singing, dancing cast form the title character's name with their elastic bodies and Matthew James Thomas's Pippin jumps through the paper-hoop portion of his first initial to land on his feet. And that's just the beginning of the sinuous theatrics dreamed by "circus creator" Gypsy Snider, a co-founder of Cirque du Soleil's less overblown Montreal cousin, Les 7 doigts de la main.
Fans of the musical (which has its devotees, Paulus included) may think the aerial, acrobatic, and contortionist dazzle overwhelms the thin if perky musical about looking for fulfillment in all the wrong if glorified places before settling for an ordinary life that involves setting neither the world nor oneself on fire. But such folks will have to content themselves that this is also an accomplished core production of Pippin, a sort of lesser Candide, wielding pop-composer Schwartz, his star reignited by Wicked, instead of Leonard Bernstein.
Paulus is smart enough to retain the original show's stylistic signature in the Bob Fosse–inspired choreography of original Pippin cast replacement Chet Walker, who supplies all the splayed hands and jutting pelvises you could want. And to nab the sublime Andrea Martin, who, hanging from more than the Borscht Belt, milks comic nectar from the bouncing carpe diem number, "No Time at All." Then Paulus marries Pippin's old tricks to the beckoning circus ring-mastered by Patina Miller as the Leading Player. The slinkily commanding Miller mixes a little Joel Grey into the role that won Ben Vereen a Tony, and she seems possessed of hips on hinges.
PIPPIN :: Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St, Cambridge :: Through January 20 :: $25-$85 :: 617.547.8300 or americanrepertorytheater.org