Friday, January 23, 2009

Review of MTF/DWT's Pippin

book by Roger O. Hirson
music & lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
directed & choregraphed by Jeff Calhoun
Mark Taper Forum
through March 15
In 1972 Pippin opened on Broadway and became one of the longest running musicals in Broadway history, closing in 1977. Stephen Schwartz's bubbling optimistic tunes made the surreal and sensual mood of the piece an ultra-pleasant experience for theatre goers. One actually left the theatre humming the score. Throughout the dreamlike texture of Pippin's quest for his "Corner of the Sky", however, there blooms a simplistic, timeless message that reverberates to this day. So, even though the brand new production, co-produced by the Mark Taper Forum and Deaf West Theatre is visually more opulent, more scrupulously detailed and more complex (due to the even larger cast) than the original, the pieces of the puzzle all fit into place - original director Bob Fosse would approve - and the play's substance is untarnished. Director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun may take a bow for his simply stunning ambition.
Talking about opulence, scenes were not only interesting to watch because of the exquisite sets and costuming (Tobin Ost), but due to the constant unpredictability of the proceedings, like hands and feet popping up regularly in Fosse-esque rhythm through holes in the floor. On a different note, I saw Irene Ryan in constant movement onstage in the original staging of "No Time At All", but here Berthe (heavenly Harriet Harris) remains stationery in a hoop skirt, but wait until you see what's under it with her. And the frolicking in the red-silked bed with undulating bodies appearing as if from nowhere is a sensual eyeful. Thank heaven for Calhoun's extraordinarily perverse visions! It is also a treat to view many of the illusions incorporated here that were so popular in Schwartz's Magic Show (1974).
As in most Deaf West productions, roles are double cast with both hearing actors, who talk and sing, and hearing impaired actors, who sign. Pippin is beautifully interpreted by deaf actor Tyrone Giordano (remember his indelible Huck Finn in Big River?) and Michael Arden (his gorgeous voice sang Pippin a couple of years ago at Reprise). Side by side they complement each other like two halves of the same person. A boy and his alter ego. One reacting one way and the other perhaps the way he wishes he would. Quite a brilliant perspective, which adds further depth to the boy's quest for happiness. Another dimension here is the deaf man's longing to succeed singularly in the hearing world that opposes him.
The entire cast is splendid. Ty Taylor is a dynamically sizzling Leading Player, like Ben Vereen before him. Both Giordano and Arden make Pippin totally vulnerable and believable. Character performances are all wonderful: Sara Gettelfinger makes a deliciously cunning Fastrada; Melissa van der Schyff wins our hearts as the forthright and homespun Catherine; Harris is hilarious as usual (although I would have preferred an older grandmother a la Eileen Brennan, Cloris Leachman or Estelle Parsons); Troy Kotsur is formidable as Charles and James Royce Edwards is fun to watch as the bemuscled narcissist Lewis. Bravo to the rest of the ensemble as well!
This is a glorious show for everyone. It brings hope into a normal: empty, vacant life and really makes one think hard about his priorities.
Superior production!
5 out of 5 stars


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