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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review

Suppose this war goes frivolous, there'll always be another. — Charles
According to Jeff Calhoun, the director/choreographer of the stunning revival of the 1970s musical smash at the Taper which is co-produced by Deaf West Theatre/Center Theatre Group "Pippin sings with his hands." Calhoun's team transported Big River from Ed Waterstreet's tiny North Hollywood storefront theatre to mainstream CTG and on to an award-winning Broadway run.

Actually the singing of Pippin, played initially by deaf actor Tyrone Giordano, is done by his alter ego Michael Arden in a shared role that in Calhoun's hands demonstrates two sides of the character. Other deaf actors are voiced by singers, while some roles are played by singing actors. Everybody signs.

This production is totally different in tone and content from Mark Twain's classic. In Pippin, composer Stephen Schwartz and book writer Roger O. Hirson created a 1970s parable about a young man's search for self-realization (remember that term?) through War, the Flesh, Revolution against the father, career, love and family. Egged on to a flaming sacrifice by the evil Leading Player who, in this production as played by the dazzling Ty Taylor looks like Sporting Life in Porgy and Bess, Pippin ends with a more ambiguous but satisfying note.

Pippin seems to afford even more scope for Calhoun's fecund creativity than Big River. He doesn't try to re-invent Bob Fosse's memorable choreography but uses the unique talents of this cast to expand the Pippin concept. Hands rise from rabbit holes in the stage, reinforcing their use by the entire cast which learned American Sign Language before doing anything else. The signing adds so immeasurably to the production one wishes all musicals were done this way. With all the performers signing, it seems like a way of life or, should I say, dance.

Calhoun underscores the magical element of the production with circus tricks. When Giordano, who also played Huck in Big River, steps on stage and can't speak, Player coos that there seems to be a communication problem. He puts Pippin in a magician's box which is sawed in two. When it's separated, Giordano comes out of the head end. Out of the foot end steps singer Michael Arden who played Pippin here in Reprise! at UCLA.

It could be daunting to be the actor singing for the charismatic Giordano but Calhoun has wisely directed the men as two halves of the same person. Arden, in addition to an expressive voice that projects Pippin's inner aspiration, gives a sensitive reflective quality to Pippin. One of Calhoun's most delicious touches is in the unforgettable bedroom scene in which voluptuous women squirm out of the mattress to seduce both Pippins. Arden's Pippin lights the conventional post-coital cigarette while Giordano's Pippin reels limply out of bed.

Another welcome return from his role as Pap in Big River is Troy Kotsur, the deaf actor who plays Charlemagne, called Charles in this production. Still a paternal blustering tyrant with menace beneath his amusing façade, he is splendidly voiced by Dan Callaway, always posted in the center of the theatre.

Harriet Harris does a star turn as Pippin's grandmother, Berthe, leading the audience in a sing-along. Sara Gettelfinger sneers smoothoy as the wicked stepmother, Fastrada, mother of Pippin's half-brother Lewis, in an unbelievably hunky portrayal by James Royce Edwards. Melissa van der Schyff finds the tentative yearning in Pippin's last love Catherine, mother of little Theo, poignantly played by signing actor Nicholas Conway and sung by Bryan Terrell Clark.

Vivid and imaginative costumes and set by Tobin Ost are an integral part of this production's excitement, highlighted by devilish red and neon lights. Schwartz has created some new songs for this production but the haunting number which expresses the soul of Pippin is "Corner of the Sky." This Pippin's search for his corner of the sky deserves to go to Broadway and beyond.

Book by Roger O. Hirson, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Director/Choreographer: Jeff Calhoun
Cast: Ty Taylor (Leading Player), Michael Arden, Tyrone Giordano (Pippin), Sara Gettelfinger (Fastrada), Harriet Harris (Berthe), James Royce Edwards (Lewis), Troy Kostur (Charles), Dan Callaway (Voice of Charles), Melissa van der Schyff (Catherine), Nicholas Conway, Jose F. Lopez, Jr. (Theo), Bryan Terrell Clark (Voice of Theo), TL Forsberg, Victoria Platt, Nikki Tomlinson, Alexandria Wailes (Magician Assistants), Anthony Natale (Torch Bearer/Petitioner), Rodrick Covington (Voice of Torch Bearer/Nobe), Noble (John McGinty), Aleks Pevec (Voice of Petitioner),
Scenic and Costume Production Design: Tobin Ost
Lighting Design: Donald Holder
Sound Design: Philip G. Allen
Illusion Design: Jim Steinmeyer
Hair and Wigs: Carol Doran
American Sign Language Masters: Linda Bove, Alan Champion
Orchestrations: Tom Kitt
Production Stage Manager: David Sugarman
Music Direction and Arrangements: Steven Landau
Running Time: Two hours, no intermission
Running Dates: January 15-March 15, 2009
Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, Reservations: (213) 628-2772.
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on January 27, 2009.
Musical Numbers
Magic To Do /Leading Player, Players
Corner of the Sky /Pippin
Back Home Again /Leading Player, Pippin, Charles, Fastrada, Lewis, Players
War Is A Science /Charles, Pippin, Magician Assistants,Players
Glory / Leading Player, Pippin, Lewis, Players
Simple Joys /Leading Player, Magician Assistants
No Time At All /Berthe, Pippin, Players
With You /Pippin, Players
Spread A Little Sunshine /Fastrada, Lewis
Morning Glow /Pippin, Players
On the Right Track /Leading Player, Pippin
Kind of Woman /Catherine, Magician Assistants
Prayer for a Duck /Pippin, Theo
Love Song /Pippin, Catherine
I Guess I'll Miss the Man / Catherine
Finale /Leading Player, Pippin, Players
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