Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Letting The Jazz Hands Do All The Talking (And Singing) - Pippin - Musical Review

Pippin - Mark Taper Forum - Los Angeles, CA - *** (out of 5)
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, Book by Roger O. Hirson, Directed and Choreographed by Jeff Calhoun
Runs until March 15th 2009.

The latest revival of the 1972 musical Pippin in Los Angeles is by the Center Theatre Group in co-production with Deaf West Theatre. Like their previous co-production Big River (which eventually transferred to Broadway), the entire musical is signed (as in sign-language) as well as sung, with many parts played by two actors. A deaf actor using sign language, and an actor that sings and speaks for them. In a show that has an overlying theme of magic, the use of hands doing sign language seems like a perfect fit for a musical with its jazz hands and all.

In the story of Pippin, about a young prince trying to find fulfillment in his life after college, he's brought on various journey's ("Back Home Again" to King Charlemagne, off to war, into lust and an orgy, through a revolution, onto a farm, and so on) in search of his purpose.

It takes a moment to get used to the idea that two actors often play one character, but in this production, it sort of fits perfectly with the idea of the show. The musical's narrator, the Leading Player (Ty Taylor, above centre), introduces a new actor playing the role of Pippin. In a clever twist in this production, they magically split the shy uncommunicative Pippin into two actors ("Magic To Do"), with Tyrone Giordano (above right, Big River) as the original Pippin, and Michael Arden (above left, Bare, The Return of Jezebel James) acting as his voice. While they mostly act in unison through the show, there are times they differ in their actions, showing the internal struggles Pippin must choose between in his life. It's a literal vision of the undecided mind of Pippin as he tries to find his "Corner of the Sky".

Michael Arden has a BEAUTIFUL singing voice and a handsome profile, and his pairing with the contemplative and genial Tyrone Giordano centres the show with a great solid central performance in a musical that is often too meandering.

While director Jeff Calhoun has some sparks of cleverness in reinterpreting this show to include Deaf Actors and Voiced Actors in dual roles (especially in incorporating magic show tricks within the existing story), the cleverness is not enough to fill the gap of a strange and often maligned book that has been always problematic. Add to the fact that the two best and most memorable songs are within the first scene ("Magic To Do" and "Corner of the Sky"), Stephen Schwartz's music (Wicked, Godspell) isn't enough to create a memorable centre for the musical. The songs are all catchy and enjoyable but sometimes a bit too simplistic and I've never really found Schwartz's music to be that great or memorable, even though a lot have become "classics".

The story of Pippin is episodic with a moral commentary on war, lust, naiveness and selfishness and while ultimately, I enjoyed the overall theme of existential crisis within the search for true fulfillment, the book seems clunky and hazy at times, with new storylines popping up in a totally new direction after every scene. I did however love the dark and twisted ending with an ultimate happy ending.

However, if you can just accept the base Pippin and all its problems, Calhoun and company have done a remarkable job to keep it as entertaining as possible, despite a set that sometimes seems too cold and clever to underline the warmth of the shows heart.

Harriet Harris (Frasier, Thoroughly Modern Millie) shows up as Berthe, Pippin's "grandmother" who is extremely ungrandmotherly when she sings "No Time At All" with hot shirtless boys underneath her dress. While it's a small role, Harris also shows up in the ensemble, and she looks like she's having a blast taking on a smaller role but getting to use sign language as an additional acting tool.

James Royce Edwards plays a hilarious Lewis, Pippin's overmuscled (seriously, check out his arms), underbrained step-brother. Troy Kotsur (above) plays a huffy King Charles with Dan Callaway giving voice (usually from a standing position in the audience).

I didn't love Sara Gettelfinger's (above) Fastrada, Pippin's essentially evil self-serving step-mom, but that might be the point.

Melissa Van der Schyff (above) fares better as Catherine, a farm lady Pippin is sent to help, and who along with her son Theo (Jose F. Lopez Jr. at my performance), becomes a family that Pippin begins fearing and backing away from.

Ty Taylor takes the role Ben Vereen made famous and does a suitable (if maybe not evil enough) Leading Player who controls and narrates the whole show. Taylor's voice though is fantastic (and he's probably most famous for being on Rock Star: INXS as a contestant).

I loved the new spin on this show, with an interesting way to incorporate deaf actors and signing into the show and while I enjoyed the overall story and themes within Pippin, I still had problems with its parts and feel like it's still a show in need of some retooling instead of the classic Broadway show that it is (though apparently much of the original production's success is due to Bob Fosse's involvement as director and choreographer, more so than the actual show).

Photos by Craig Schwartz.
Vance at


Action Wolfe said...

I have heard the word "Pippin" thrown around a lot in interviews and such, since I'm in Australia it was interesting to learn what it actually looks like and is in brief... if its anything on par with Wicked I would be blown away. It's now on my to watch list when I hit NY.

xx Action Wolfe

Vance said...

It's different. It was one of Stephen's first works (I think he wrote it when he was 24) while Wicked is big and mega, this is actually more of a quiet personal journey story and I think the original did well because of Fosse's direction and made Pippin "showy". Still no word if this new version will hit Broadway but that's the rumour that they are hoping for a transfer.