Home / Theater Review (LA): Pippin by Schwartz and Hirson at the Mark Taper Forum

Theater Review (LA): Pippin by Schwartz and Hirson at the Mark Taper Forum

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A joyous new production of Pippin has opened at the Mark Taper Forum in conjunction with the Deaf West Theatre. Their last collaboration, Big River, was a smash hit which played on Broadway and won several Tony Awards. This new production is based on the now legendary production by Bob Fosse that opened in 1972 and ran for 1,944 performances. It has an infectious score written by a very young Stephen Schwartz of Wicked fame. The original production starred Ben Vereen, Irene Ryan, Jill Clayburgh, Eric Berry, Leland Palmer, and John Rubinstein as Pippin. It’s been done everywhere, sometimes in a watered-down version. Bob Fosse’s production was incredible theatrical, original (the way he individualized the chorus), and deeply disturbing. Of course it played during the Vietnam War and had lots of anti-war, anti-establishment overtones.

We are now in another war, two in fact, that are very unpopular. Our last president was widely disliked, and the USA faces a new but still troubled political climate. It seems a no-brainer to revive this piece of agitprop theatrical magic. The director and choreographer is the amazingly talented Jeff Calhoun, who guided the last collaboration between the Taper and the Deaf West Theatre.

While paying homage to the original, Calhoun really reinvents the piece. You must admire his inventiveness and even courage for risking comparisons to Fosse. Luckily he has a charismatic lead in Ty Taylor, who struts his stuff as the leading player. The production begins with a tribute to and reinvention of Fosse’s opening. Fosse created a wall of smoke, while the actors gestured for the audience to join them on stage. Calhoun has the fingers come from the floor and begin signing the lyrics; it’s very clever. Everyone signs in this production and at times I found it distracting. This wasn’t the case with Big River, where the hearing actors didn’t have to sign but were free to use their hands naturally while a deaf actor signed what they were saying or singing.

The cast is a talented lot. It includes dual Pippins (Michael Arden and Tyrone Giordano), Harriet Harris, James Royce Edwards as muscle-bound Lewis, Troy Kostur as Charles, and Melissa van der Schyff as Catherine. I missed some of the original interpretations of the characters, mainly Charles and Fastrada, but I think it is only fair to state that I did the first National Tour when it played at the Dorothy Chandler, understudying the king. Those looking for a fresh approach to Pippin should hurry down to the Mark Taper where it plays until March 15.

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