On a recent visit to downtown San Jose, the actress Adrienne Barbeau, a South Bay native and alumna of Del Mar High School, reminisced about the start of her musical comedy career at the Montgomery Theater. Although she still has family in Los Gatos, Barbeau was brought to town this month to play the part of Berthe in the touring production of Pippin.
In 2013, the musical was entirely reconceived from its original 1970s, Bob Fosse-choreographed incarnation. This high-flying, updated version of the Broadway show went on to win four Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical.
If you’re not familiar with either version of the show, Pippin is the story of a young man on the search for something to give meaning to his life. As Berthe, Barbeau plays the titular character’s grandmother, who provides some much needed grounding to her grandson.
“She has my philosophy, which is that you need to live in the moment,” Barbeau says. “You think too much. Enjoy this day, because this is all we have. In no time at all, it’s going to be gone.” In one sense, her character’s feet are firmly planted on the ground. When you see the moment performed on stage, she conveys her wisdom with an unexpected kind of levity.
According to Barbeau, the show’s director, Diane Paulus, “reimagined the musical with a group of circus performers and acrobats. She hired Gypsy Snider, who was from a family of circus people, to draw on acrobats and circus performers from Cirque du Soleil and Les 7 doigts de la main. We’re not talking elephants here.”
What we are talking about, however, is a lot of spectacular trapeze. “What drew me to the role of Pippin’s grandmother is that half of my number is done singing as I’m hanging upside down in the air.” It all sounds daunting at first, until you hear about her early work with the San Jose Light Opera.
“I went to Southeast Asia with the Opera in a musical comedy revue and entertained the G.I.s there for three months under the auspices of the State Department a week after I graduated high school.”
After Barbeau returned to the States, she packed her bags and moved to New York despite not knowing a soul. By 1972, she’d earned a Tony nomination as the original Rizzo in the Broadway production of Grease. From there, the Norman Lear sitcom Maude with Bea Arthur kept her busy for the rest of that decade.
In thinking about the arc of her career-from her film collaborations with the director John Carpenter (Escape from New York, The Fog) to guest-starring roles on a wide range of television shows: Fantasy Island, Dexter, The Drew Carey Show, Sons of Anarchy-where should someone unfamiliar with her work begin? Barbeau has a suggestion:
“I loved the role of Lucy in HBO’s Carnivale. She was just a fantastic character.” After many years in the show business carnival, the actress still retains her sense of wonder watching the acrobats perform in Pippin. “Every night, I stand in the wings and hold my breath to make sure everybody makes their leaps and jumps and catches.”