Roger O. Hirson and Stephen Schwartz's 1972 "Pippin" meshes nicely with Deaf West Theater's performance style, though it falls well short of the company's "Big River," which sailed from the Mark Taper Forum into a memorable 2003 Broadway stint. Some shrewd choices have been made, but others seem underconceived or downright baffling.
Roger O. Hirson and Stephen Schwartz’s 1972 “Pippin” meshes nicely with Deaf West Theater’s performance style, though it falls well short of the company’s “Big River,” which sailed from the Mark Taper Forum into a memorable 2003 Broadway stint. Some shrewd choices have been made, but others seem underconceived or downright baffling. Is helmer-choreographer Jeff Calhoun, in the words of one of the better-staged songs, “On the Right Track” to repeat the eastward journey? Tuner’s broader emotional lines first need attending. The problem isn’t two Pippins (one hearing, one deaf), but a dramatic spine that’s been halved.
In the charming opening, a Leading Player (Ty Taylor) and troupe proclaim “Magic to Do.” Sinuous hands appear from the floor — much comedy emerges from similar Whack-a-Mole business — with pleasing choreography created when American Sign Language and dance merge. Earnest, glowing Prince Pippin (Tyrone Giordano) lacks speech, a “failure to communicate” solved in traditional Houdini fashion by producing a singing doppelganger (Michael Arden).
Seemingly aged not a day since “Big River” but with even greater expressiveness, Giordano bonds seamlessly with Arden’s superlative vocals and vulnerability. Their communication is a perfect living metaphor for one mind at odds with itself, as the rootless son of Emperor Charlemagne (Troy Kotsur) sets out to find his “Corner of the Sky” (and they nail that ever-fresh “I want” ballad).
However, Pippin’s search for purpose rests within librettist Hirson’s framing device. The Player, puppetmaster of a contemporary morality play, presents all manner of empty temptations (war, power, sex), anticipating the hero’s ultimate decision to self-destruct. Yet Calhoun allows the connections among the troupe, and the morality-play conceit, virtually to disappear until well into the tuner’s second hour.
If the Leading Player isn’t leading his minions — if he’s just a pushy, writhing narrator — the story is robbed of danger and point. And with nothing at stake in the storytelling, what’s left is a choppy vaudeville in questionable taste, genuine emotion (except that created between the Pippins) seemingly banished by royal decree.
Rubber amputated body parts dropping from the flies remove all horror from Pippin’s search for glory in warfare. Sara Gettelfinger’s stepmotherly wickedness is neutralized to near-invisibility, and Kotsur’s power is reduced by a speaking voice (Dan Callaway) weirdly placed out in the house.
Grandmother Berthe (a too-young, too-affected Harriet Harris) turns a gentle sage contemplating mortality into a campy hot mama in her prime, harnessed dudes lurking under her skirt. Yet even vulgarized, her sing-along “No Time at All” might be redeemed if they taught us a little signing: The repeated phrase “just no time at all” requires three simple movements, a potentially thrilling moment of ASL audience participation.
Pippin bounces back to consider settling down with the Widow Catherine, played by a likable and sincere, if cartoonishly countrified, Melissa van der Schyff. They share a touching “Love Song” complete with ASL shadows upstage, but the romance feels rushed and forced. (Another puzzling decision is the deep adult voice assigned to Catherine’s young son, Theo.)
Taylor returns to wrest back the proceedings, but it’s too little, too late for the framing device. For all the troupe’s efforts to seduce Pippin into self-immolation (“Think about the sun”), they may as well be singing offstage, because all attention is on the tortured Giordano and Arden. Pippin completes his journey satisfyingly, but it’s not integrated with everyone else.
This revival can surely, if it so chooses, ramp up its emotional core. Harder to come by will be a remedy for Tobin Ost’s physical production, which eschews any sense of the lushly medieval in favor of a motif of red velvet and playing cards that suggests a Vatican-themed Vegas casino. Similar hints of an off-Strip lounge act are visible in the cheap-looking drapery and unflattering, makeshift red-and-black chorus attire.
Schwartz’s score, arguably his richest ever, is well sung throughout to Tom Kitt’s clever (if synthesizer-thin) orchestrations and Steven Landau’s admirable music direction.