STORY WRITTEN BY NEAL ZOREN
For Digital First Media
Free-falling from a pole while trusting two men to catch him was not part of Brian Flores’s training or experience.
In spite of being in the theater for most of his 22-year-old life, the Boulder, Colorado native and University of Michigan grad had stuck to the basics. His voice, he says, led him to acting and being serious about a career as a performer. Dance was part of being in musicals, but the extreme, physical parts of theater, such as acrobatics and circus skills were not part of Flores’s repertoire.
Right out of Michigan, Flores was cast to play the title role in “Pippin,” the current version of which is built by director Diane Paulus and choreographer Chet Walker around circus specialties. In addition to Flores taking his leap of faith from that pole, Broadway’s original Rizzo from “Grease,” Adrienne Barbeau,delivers her big number from a trapeze. John Rubinstein, the first ever to play Pippin on Broadway, is in the cast as Flores’s father, Charlemagne.
“I am so excited right now, and every night I’m on the stage as “Pippin,” says Flores by telephone from Buffalo, where “Pippin” appeared prior to coming to Philadelphia’s Academy of Music for a weeklong stay from February 23 to 28.
“Everybody has been so wonderful to me. I am working with people who have proved themselves on Broadway and on television for years and with marvelously skilled circus performers, and none of them ever treat like the kid who got a lucky break and playing a lead in his first show.
“The training for this part was amazing. It involved three weeks of being immersed in the circus and learning all kinds of physical moves. If I was nervous, one of the veteran circus performers would assure me he’d be there, that I was not going to fall. Diane said we would take things one step at a time. The days were intense, and the work was hard, but at the end of the three weeks, she was right. I could do all that was required of me. A few months into the tour, I’m still learning, but I trust my cast, they trust me, and this has been one glorious experience.”
Flores does not want to minimize the work it took to make Paulus’s production of “Pippin” the sensation it’s been since it arrived on Broadway in 2013.
“I had not seen ‘Pippin’ until I joined the tour, and all of the movement is much harder than I thought, but you work at it bit and bit, and it comes together. Slowly, I became an acrobat.
“I was also challenged vocally because the keys in this production are higher than they were in the original production, from which the music was familiar to me. Everything seemed crazy at first, but it became more and more wonderful as I adapted to it.
“Being among the circus performers helped. They have a strong culture of helping and teaching each other. They want to pass along skills and make everyone sharper. I received a lot of support from them. Having John (Rubinstein) there was also a great piece of luck. He is so generous, and we could talk about the differences in ‘Pippin’ from when he did it in the ‘70s and also discuss traits of the character. I was well cared for by everyone.”
Flores says he was surprised at the directness of some advice he received. “While I was learning one acrobatic move, I was told I have to squeeze my butt muscles to hold the tension, or I’d fall over.”
Given that he is just beginning his professional career, Flores says he is not sure what led the casting director to see Pippin in him.
“I don’t really know. I auditioned. Then I was asked to go to the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. so more people could me. Then I was asked to be in the tour.”
Flores says he understands Pippin as a character because they are both at the same point in their lives.
Pippin, a prince, the heir apparent to Charlemagne, has finished his university studies and longs to distinguish himself in some way. He says in song he is trying to “find my corner of the sky.” He sees himself as extraordinary, but he doesn’t quite know in what way that’s true, so he tries various pursuits and usually ends up frustrated.
“I know what Pippin’s life if like. His feelings, positive and negative, are clear to me. I feel close to him,” Flores says.
“Even being in this show helps me to identify with Pippin. I was new, just out of school, and I’m tapped to play a major part in a major tour. It’s wonderful, but it’s scary. Even when I know I can do the role and learned so many new things.
“College was a maturing experience for me. I discovered more about who I was and what I wanted to be as an artist. Playing Pippin in this tour is professionally maturing. And personally. I have embarked on my adult life, and in a way that lets me do what I trained and desired to do. I am constantly processing this, just as Pippin searches for his adult identity.”
Flores became interested in the theater after going with his parents to see national tours of Broadway shows in Denver.
“I would practice what I saw, and since I had a good voice, I took voice lessons that led to an interest in acting. Going to Michigan was life-changing in that I saw all performing entailed. College for me was what college is supposed to me, a time to grow. I acquired a mindset about work, and about the theater being a business, that helped ground me and give me structure. This amazing experience in ‘Pippin’ reinforces all of that.”
In addition to Barbeau, Rubinstein, and the circus folks, Flores says it’s a joy to work daily with the tour’s Leading Player, Gabrielle McClinton.
“Pippin” runs through Tuesday, February 23 to Sunday, February 28, at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets, in Philadelphia. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $120 to $20 and can be obtained by calling 215-893-1999 or by visiting www.kimmelcenter.org.