Theater Review: Pippin

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After the exhilarating success of "Sleeping Beauty Wakes" a few seasons ago at the Kirk Douglas, it was obvious that the audacious ingenuity and profound humanity of a DeafWest co-production -- featuring a mixed deaf and hearing cast and touched with a hint of Cirque du Soleil -- always will be a powerful, multidimensional theatrical experience. Despite the best efforts of the Deaf West Theatre cast and crew, however, this revival of the 1973 Broadway musical mostly fizzles.

It might be Stephen Schwartz's brightly colored but ultimately generic score. Or perhaps it's the fault of Roger O. Hirson's book about discovering the secret of life (simplify, simplify, simplify), which comes off as cut-rate "Candide." Only the character of Catherine (in an exceptionally eloquent, moving performance by Melissa van der Schyff) has any emotional content. And only the character of Charlemagne (brilliantly acted by Troy Kotsur in tandem with Dan Callaway) provides real comic content, merging the wit of Gilbert and Sullivan with the lascivious antics of Offenbach ("I wonder whether the fornicating," he muses, "is worth the fornicating I'm getting").

Working on a cramped, industrially bare stage with only a hint of Bob Fosse's exuberant, snazzy choreography, this surrealistic musical epic -- which begins with a Las Vegas magic show and visits the court of Charlemagne before settling down on the American prairie -- never gives much reason to care about the fate of the central character (earnestly acted by Tyrone Giordano, beautifully sung and spoken by Michael Arden). And we never get to know just how good Ty Taylor is in the Ben Vereen role of the Leading Player because his physical presence is marginalized, while the lighting inexplicably cuts him off at the knees so it's hard to enjoy the elegance and energy of his dancing.

There is no shortage of hard work from the multitalented cast, all of whom have to be either consummate actors, singers, signers, dancers or all of the above. But what worked for "Sleeping Beauty," which was a new work with no history of stars, slumps because, unfairly or not, none of the major players erases memories of Vereen, Jill Clayburgh or Irene Ryan, to name just a few.

This is potentially a great show for kiddies, unless parents are squeamish about such sequences as Pippin's adventures with a mixed-gender and highly suggestive sextet (emphasis on "sex") or the outrageous sexual antics and proclamations of Pippin's grandmother (Harriet Harris, with the right sense of enjoyment and entitlement but without a true belter's voice).

There's also lots of fun for the whole family in Tobin Ost's imaginative scenery and costumes. The turrets of Charlemagne's castle, for example, are a wonderful cross between missiles and crayons. And whether it's a refreshingly varied troupe of Vegas showgirls strutting their stuff in surprisingly provocative outfits, the fabulous Betty Furness look of the wicked queen (Sara Gettelfinger, adorable in her evilness), Pippin's wannabe king of a brother (James Royce Edwards) raising goofiness to an art form in his Siegfried and Roy mail and armor, Charlemagne's army in their glittery Flash Gordon uniforms or Charlemagne's hand-me-down ermine and purple robe, this is what makes theater so much fun.

Venue: Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles (Through March 15)
Cast: Ty Taylor, Michael Arden, Tyrone Giordano, Sara Gettelfinger, Harriet Harris, James Royce Edwards, Troy Kotsur, Dan Callaway, Melissa van der Schyff
Book: Roger O. Hirson
Music and lyrics: Stephen Schwartz
Director-choreographer: Jeff Calhoun
Music direction and arrangements: Steven Landau
Set and costume designer: Tobin Ost
Lighting designer: Donald Holder
Sound designer: Philip G. Allen
Illusion designer: Jim Steinmeyer
Casting: Bonnie Grisan and Erika Sellin