The visual and rhythmic pleasures of East West Players’ anime and hip-hop-influenced “Pippin” almost permit one to overlook the production’s undercooked execution. But for all the eye candy, the ear and mind are forced to work far too hard to gain entry into the 1972 tuner’s world.
This remains Roger O. Hirson’s “Pippin,” the saga of the eponymous prince (Ethan Le Phong) sure of his superior qualities but lacking a purpose to which he can apply them. With few if any textual revisions, the tale is still set in the Holy Roman Empire of father Charlemagne (Mike Hagiwara), albeit acted against projected prints and slides from medieval Japan.
Naomi Yoshida’s stunning costumes evoke centuries’ worth of Asian couture, with specific cinematic references ranging from “Seven Samurai” and “Ran” to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and Bruce Lee’s chopsocky thrillers.
And this is still Stephen Schwartz’s peppy score — arguably his best ever — albeit reorchestrated by music director Marc Macalintal to incorporate a techno backbeat and DJ scratching, not to mention strains of instruments as varied as harpsichord and samisen. If there’s magic to do, Macalintal’s prodigious keyboarding is ever ready to provide it.
The fact that many anime tales deal with a youth’s violent journey to fulfillment sets Pippin’s quest into a tradition of psychological darkness. Helmer Tim Dang brings an unusually creepy seriousness to Pippin’s temptations and the sinister machinations of the Leading Player (a black-coated, breakdancing Marcus Choi).
Concept also mandates charming multicultural transpositions. If Pippin goes to war, a phalanx of soldiers execute martial arts dance moves with swinging pikes. If he explores the sins of the flesh, big-haired, big-hearted showgirls appear against neon to transport us to the Ginza. In a nod to gender-bending Asian theatrical tradition, Grandmother Berthe is actor Gedde Watanabe, complete with kimono, wig and wooden geta.
And throughout, Dan Weingarten’s jaw-droppingly varied, inventive lighting vividly complements the action. So why does this production feel so unfinished?
The most obvious problem is the imbalance between voices and accompaniment. One strains to hear Hirson’s dialogue and finally gives up, while Schwartz’s lyrics become a dead loss. Significantly, no sound designer is credited, but even if one is engaged, the cast’s diction and command of lines on opening night was far too shaky for audience comfort.
Vacancy at the top is a bigger issue. As Le Phong rushes heedlessly through key character lines, his unvaried introversion is a total downer. Yes, sullenness is a perennial anime hero trait, but so are the wide eyes indicating at least traces of ingenuousness. This whiny hero needs warmth. At the very least, when he’s told “You look frenzied/You look flustered” we should see evidence of something other than dull passivity.
Turning the Leading Player into the implacably cool Morpheus from “The Matrix” wouldn’t be a bad idea if Pippin were likable, but as it is, the combination of cool, dry hero and cool, dry antagonist (both swallowing much of their dialogue) drags the proceedings down.
Highest marks go to Hagiwara’s hilarious Charlemagne, a dead ringer for Toshiro Mifune in an orange fright wig; and Maegan McConnell’s ex-hippie g.f. Catherine, glowing with love and confidence.
Watanabe would shine in his/her show-stopping “No Time at All” turn if choreographers Blythe Matsui and Jason Tyler Chong hadn’t mucked it up with extraneous movement, hammy chorus overreaction and a clunkily spinning set piece. Most of the movement sequences suffer from similar fussiness and, worse, lack of spontaneity. Pippin doesn’t get seduced into accompanying the Player in “On the Right Track.” He jumps in immediately, with no build.
Show dances are opportunities for acting, not shine-it-on Vegas glitz. As gasp-inducingly athletic as they are, principals and choristers alike are executing their moves dutifully rather than out of an acting impulse. When the numbers are mostly by-the-numbers, a lot of life is sucked out of an otherwise eye-popping “Pippin.”