Also see Sharon's review of Hunter Gatherers
But Calhoun and company have set themselves a harder task with their latest musical, Pippin. Because, while Pippin might not be a musical of great substance, it is a musical of a certain style. Sure, it's seemingly the story of a young man trying to find his place in the world. But, for anyone who remembers the original production, it's also a musical defined by Bob Fosse's dark and sexy choreography and, of course, Ben Vereen's Tony-winning turn as the dangerously charismatic Leading Player. Deaf West has raised the stakes for itself by addressing a musical for which people already have expectations.
And while the risks are greater, so is the payoff. When Deaf West's Pippin succeeds, it does so brilliantly. While Big River had different pairs of related characters interpreting for each other (mother/daughter; sisters; partners-in-crime), Pippin takes a different tackthe only time a main character is voiced by another performer who is on stage with him, that character is Pippin himself. As the show opens, Tyrone Giordano is playing Pippinbut Giordano signs, and many in the audience cannot understand him. The Leading Player performs a magic trick and literally splits Pippin in twocreating a singing half, Michael Arden, to share in Giordano's duties. It's more than just Arden singing for the signing Giordano; Arden and Giordano are both Pippin. Amusingly, Giordano has a white shirt with black arms, while Arden's is black with white arms, suggesting the Yin and Yang of the two performersthey're equal but different sides of the same whole.
As the play proceeds, the Pippins are on the same page. Arden's glorious rendition of "Corner of the Sky" is matched by Giordano's equally passionate and optimistic signing of the song. And they are together in Pippin's quest for happinesswhen Pippin seeks the pleasures of the flesh, both Giordano and Arden take part in the orgy; when Pippin kills his father, King Charles, thinking he can be a better ruler, both Pippins are equally complicit in the act. But the use of double Pippins becomes extraordinary in the latter part of the play, when Pippin meets the widow, Catherine. When Giordano's Pippin starts to have feelings for Catherine, Arden's Pippin becomes a third wheel, and the staging of their disagreement over Catherine makes explicit the character's indecision. When the play approaches Pippin's final decision, the use of two Pippins ultimately illustrates the play's themes so strongly, the finale has more emotional impact than in productions which have only a single actor playing the part.
And, while Deaf West's use of two Pippins is so effective, other elements of the production fail to deliver. Ty Taylor does sing and sign the Leading Player with a certain amount of style. Indeed, he signs with his entire body, using a lean or a crossed leg to carry a sign throughout his frame in a way that is downright Fosse-esque. But this Pippin fails to dance; it's static when it should be moving. There's a brief moment when the Leading Player does a few steps with the two Pippins, but this just serves to remind us that we've been missing the dancing all along. Even when Harriet Harris, as Pippin's grandmother Berthe, sings her brash "No Time At All," she is planted upstage, sitting in an oversized skirt. There is a reason for this, and she eventually gets up, but, for the bulk of the song, she's acting strictly from the waist up.
The production is also weak in design elementsusing magic tricks in place of theatrical magic. The set looks cheap (must we really see an actual corner of the sky?); and the Players are clad in costumes that are skimpy without any point. They don shiny metallic football gear when they become soldiersthe rustling kills the mood being set by the Leading Player's rendition of "Glory," and the light glints off their forearms in ways that must make it difficult for audience members to follow their signing.
It's a bit frustrating because in terms of broad strokesthe dual Pippins, the style of the Leading Player's signing, even the quality of the performersthis production works phenomenally well; it's definitely proof of concept. But it needs more work before it completely fulfill its promise.
Pippin runs at the Mark Taper Forum through March 15, 2009. For tickets and information, see www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.
Center Theatre GroupMichael Ritchie, Artistic Director; Charles Dillingham, Managing Director; Gordon Davidson, Founding Artistic Directorand Deaf West TheatreEd Waterstreet, Artistic Director/CEOpresent Pippin. Book by Roger O. Hirson; Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz; Scenic and Costume Design Tobin Ost; Lighting Design Donald Holder; Sound Design Philip G. Allen; Illusion Design Jim Steinmeyer; Hair and Wigs Carol F. Doran; Associate Director Coy Middlebrook; Associate Choreographer Richard J. Hinds; Casting Bonnie Grisan & Erika Sellin; American Sign Language Masters Linda Bove & Alan Champion; Associate Producer Ann E. Wareham; Orchestrations Tom Kitt; Production Stage Manager David Sugarman; Music direction and Arrangements Steven Landau. Directed and Choreographed by Jeff Calhoun.