Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
That is certainly true in the wonderfully imaginative and engaging Pippin currently staged by Los Altos Stage Company, where smart phones are continuously pulled out of royal robes and friar robes, armored breasts and peasant sacks, maidens' gowns and a magician's bag of tricks in order to take selfies and Instagram them on projected screens as #bestbros, #celebrate, #warriors, and dozens of other tags (scores of the funny projections designed by Gary Landis). The result is a Pippin both of this time and one that often seems so surreal to be of no time at all but more part of a dream. The small, mostly blank stage of the intimate Los Altos Stage Company for two hours, thirty minutes becomes a land where magical tricks and fantasy abound, where the Schwartz music familiar to many rings forth with LASC's own unique interpretation, and where the stage continually fills with movement and dance that smack of the Bob Fosse of 1972.
As a troupe of players quickly replace the dark stage's lone ghost light, a tall Lead Player steps forward performing tricks with scarves and flames, striking in her tight, black outfit that looks like a mixture of an equestrian's riding outfit and something one might see in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. She invites us, in her deeply rich, strikingly distinct voice, to join in a journey where we have "miracle plays to play" and "magic to do."
As the Leading Player, Deborah Rosengaus is often like the Emcee of Cabaret in her mixture of a welcoming broad smile and seductive invitations to the audience to be a part of the evening, which couples with an underlying hint of something diabolical and sinister in those eyes that pierce to the core and in that smile that is just too plastered to be real. Throughout the night, she will be creepily outstanding as narrator but also the antagonistic director who will try to force her way on the actors as they tell a story about her chosen protagonist, Pippin.
From the moment we meet the young Prince Pippin, as he begins his quest for something "completely fulfilling" to make his life "extraordinary," Dominic Dagdagan easily convinces us that he is a special Pippin. As soon as his first notes quietly emerge to ring forth "Everything has its season, everything has its time" ("Corner of the Sky"), this Pippin's voice and countenance exude boy-like wonder and hope along with youthful naivite and intensity. His purposeful, arm-length gestures to the sky and to the horizon could be easily seen as over-dramatic; but as his voice too soars heavenward to sing, "I've got to be where my spirit can run free, got to find my corner in the sky," we know this is a Pippin genuine who is about to take us on an adventure with him.
The first act of Pippin is full of the youthful plunges into whatever looks at the moment to be exciting, heroic, and a means to that so-desired "extraordinary life." Pippin heads to court to seek counsel from his father, a King Charles who is more interested in his own life of (in this version) golf, cocktails, and being known as a great lover by women far and wide, constantly interrupting his son in "Welcome Home" to focus on himself and his golf swing.
Gary Giurbino is royal through and through in his regal voice, his air of assumed superiority, and his ease of seeing killing, raping, and pillaging as "absolutely required" in order to rid his kingdom of the undesired Visigoths. He brings also an animated cartoon-like air to his Charles as he instructs with a sure and bellowing voice his gathered troops in "War Is a Science," a number that is staged like a minstrel show with the seated troop members wonderfully attending to his sung teachings about the glories of war with coordinated hand slaps to breasts and legs, the toes of feet tripping in directions all, and heads/shoulders turning in quick succession back and forth.
That number is just one of many that Brett Blankenship has fabulously choreographed to capture the famous Fosse style of rolled shoulders, jazz hands (often gloved), turned-in-and-out knees, and sideway shuffles of lined-up bodies. In many numbers, she employs canes and flat-topped hats along with steps that remind one of Fred Astaire or Gene Kelley. Throughout, the key performers and ensemble of eight perform the required moves without a noticeable hitch or hiccup.
Pippin heads to war but soon is horrified by the "Glory" so harmoniously touted by Lead Player, King, and soldiers dressed in outfits of every era from Roman to Viking to Vietnam (all part of the array of imaginative, often tongue-in-cheek costume designs by Scarlett Kellum). As body parts fly through the air and the red of lost blood floods the atmosphere (thanks to an overall excellent lighting design by Carol Fischer), Pippin flees from the fields of war eventually to the beds of romping women after a hilarious outing in a garden of poised, seducing maidens one might find on a Grecian urn ("With You"). The choreography of Ms. Blankenship again reigns supreme in a ballet-like sequence of luring maidens, followed by the sexy thrusts of lusty lads carrying signs marked "XXX."
But before this time in bed where Pippin discovers that sex without love proves fun but also meaningless, he goes to the woods to have a reunion with his exiled grandmother Berthe, leading to what is always one of the best numbers in any Pippin production. Choreographer Brett Blankenship steps into the stage limelight as a delightful sixty-something Berthe, who has her own penchant for looking longingly at the other sex. But her mission with Pippin in the delightfully delivered "No Time at All" is that "it's time to start living ... take a little from this world we're given ... cause spring will turn to fall in just no time at all." As she sings with a springy voice, Berthe moves about with spry moves and a personality that bursts with life and liveliness.
Plots abound to force Pippin to make choices that he jumps into without much thinking as he tries to right the wrongs his idealistic youthfulness sees. Enabled through the sideline and often abrupt prodding of the always watching and snidely smiling Lead Player, characters move in and out to make sure Pippin's search for meaning does not always go well.
One of those is his cocktail-dress-wearing stepmother, the beautifully evil Elizabeth Claire Lawrence as Charles' second wife Fastrada. With plenty of high kicks and high jinx, she seeks to "Spread a Little Sunshine" as she manipulates Pippin to clear a path for her not-too-smart, but oh-so-hunky son, Lewis (a comical and brutish Michael Weiland) to one day (soon) grab the crown that she likes also to use as a garter on her long, up-raised leg.
Bad things happen by Pippin's hand with plenty of strings pulled by both Fastrada and the Leading Player, but in this world bad things also can be magically undone. By the time the Leading Player sends us off to intermission, we have heard most of the most famous songs ("Morning Glory," "Glory," "Corner of the Sky," and "Magic to Do"); have had lots of adventures good and bad but all exciting in song, dance, and comedy; and have met the characters who bring the quirks and qualities we will later recall. We have also in this production been continuously enthralled by the four-piece band under the direction of keyboardist Brian Allan Hobbs.
Act two is much slower, less interesting, and at times, a bit dorky (like a "Prayer for a Duck"), with the key new characters, Catherine and her son Theo, offering not near as much fun and fury as those in the former half. Kaitlin Zablotsky plays the country estate-owning widow Catherine on whose property and then bed Pippin resides the bulk of act two. She plays the part well enough with a fine voice, but what she, Theo and Pippin are given to sing and do is just not quite up to what we have become accustomed to in the first half.
The appropriately named fiery "Finale" of Pippin is a blast to watch, and Virginia Drake directs a stage-filling and stage-emptying climax that is dramatic and hilarious at the same time. Throughout, this director has guided her talented cast to stretch themselves to express in wonderfully visual ways their feelings, reactions, quirks and personalities with movements and expressions both subtle and bold. The effect is as if an animator is in control of the people in front of us, making strokes of the brush in real time to give added and effective emphasis.
While this Pippin, like many before it, has some energy let-down for a time in act two, the Pippin of the Los Altos Stage Company is a triumphant success built on deliciously inspired direction, wildly impressive choreography, and vocal performances that never disappoint of songs well-loved by many. This is a Pippin that speaks to our troubled times just as it did to those of 1972 as so many of us also struggle to discover how to make a difference, how to live a life fulfilling, and how to be our own life's Lead Player when there are so many negatively controlling and effecting forces in the world around us.
Pippin, through June 24, 2018, at Los Altos Stage Company, 97 Hillview Avenue, Los Altos CA. Tickets are available online at losaltosstage.org or Monday - Friday, 3 - 6 pm in person at the box office or by calling 650-941-0551.