This post is from 2008- June -19. It is in regaruds to a fabulous production of “Pippin” at east west players. I wanted to include it for its (brief) discussions on projection as a design media and new adaptations of older plays.
Last night, I had the good fortune to see Pippin( by Roger O. Hirson and Stephen Schwartz) at East West players. This production was certainly a rethinking of the original play for a modern audience. A brief note: I’ve worked on 2 productions of Pippin and have seen several others.
Tim Dang directs this new production in an urban Manga/Hip-Hop style. Certain places this re-thinking works amazingly well (especially in the so-called “Manson Trio” dance during the song “Glory”, and all of the number “Right Track”). Some moments were actually hurt by the approach (I found the new version of “Extraordinary” to be very akward and just…. Loud).
Lets start by discussing the cast. Tim Dang’s cast of 13 is probably the hardest working cast I have seen on stage in a very long time. The ensemble of 6 only seemed to leave the stage for brief moments to do massive costume changes. Otherwise they were on stage singing, dancing, moving scenery and running follow spot. All of them were exceedingly talented (and on a side note very attractive).
Marcus Choi, as the leading player, was dark, mysterious, and always “on.” His strong presence was felt even when lurking in the shadows observing the action. Pippin, Ethan Le Phong, as Pippin was passionate and clueless carefully navigating his way between the empathy his character needs to create with the audience and the utter selfishness and irresponsibility of many of his actions. Mike Hagiwara, as Charles, was not the boldest biggest Charles I have ever seen, but he brought an interesting humanity to the struggle between what is best for his son, his family and his kingdom. The strong but stupid Lewis was played by Cesar Cipriano, who was amazingly the sexiest of a very sexy cast. On top of that, his martial arts moves and dancing were top notch. And unlike many other Lewis’s I’ve seen in my life, he was an excellent actor on top of it all. (The role of Lewis has to be in amazing physical shape, and a decent dancer — and most productions stop there in the casting process figuring that this is a very tall order in and of itself, and this is only the second skilled actor I have seen play the role). Fastrada, the devious queen, was performed with aplomb by Jenn Aedo who seemed to be channeling a slutty version of Carol Burnett all evening. She was both an wonderful singer and a quite capable dancer, but for some reason was never permitted to do both at once (I’ll have a longer discussion on this issue later).
Without a doubt the one actor whose performance stole every scene he was in (even if the audience didn’t recognize him in all his roles) was Gedde Watanabe. His main role was in drag as Pippin’s Grandmother Berthe, but I found his easy going acting style captivating in his ensemble moments as well. While I don’t know Dang pushed everyone far enough on the drag role nature of the part, his acting was fun. I know Watanabe to be a gifted performer of songs, but somehow this song didn’t live up the the scene around it (and it usually is a complete show stopper). I’m not sure where the problem was — but despite the wonderful performance, it is one of the weakest versions of this scene I have ever seen. (Boy do the last few sentences read like a contradiction!) In the role of Catherine, we saw the understudy Chloe Stewart, who was fine, but had some trouble finding her light and ended up delivering chunks of lines where the light stopped at her chin. William Jay, in the almost thankless role of Theo, managed to make something of it. The role is typically cast as a bratty 4-7 year old, and casting it as an early teenager did quite a lot to justify many of the lines of the character. Add to that Jay’s petulant sulkiness at his de-facto step-dad, and his heartbreak when his duck dies, and for the first time, the role really comes across as a winner.
The production design was ancient asia meets manga meets urban life. Much of it worked. Alan E. Muraoka’s scenery and projections were fun and functional and simple. The set was a basic unit set with some stairs on wheels. The only added scenery was the bed for parts of Act II. The projections both created scenery and commented on the action. They were a blast.
Dan Weingarten’s lighting was serviceable, but had some issues. His design was very unforgiving to actors who failed to place themselves correctly. Many tight specials, and odd-angled side light meant that if an actor was off his or her mark by a few inches they could be utterly in the dark. I also felt that many times the lights were coming up “late” for the actors — This may have been an actor, or stage manager issue, or maybe just how Weingarten programed the show (In addition, I know the light board they are using is not ideal for controlling all the intelligent lighting that was being used. My last criticism of the lighting has more to do with the scenery. Any show relying on projections to tell the story (as this one did) runs huge risks. Projection design is still a relatively young field and there is always a fear of it failing on shows. Weingarten’s design worked very hard to differentiate the movements of the story (possibly sacrificing enough lights for each lighting wash along the way). Because the projections were so successful, I wish had had given up some of the extras used to differentiate the movements of the story to use on getting more even washes over the stage. That said, I would err in the same way myself (and when designing projections, I often encourage the lighting designer in the same direction Weingarten went.)
Naomi Yoshida’s costumes were an irreverent smash up of many styles, and exceedingly fun, and smart, and very sexy. The shirtless Hakama(-esque) costume designed for Lewis was a perfect example of innocence and sex all rolled into one. Her work on the ensemble costumes showed a level of commitment to excellence not usually found on work for the ensemble — and it was well appreciated. I have but two complaints with the costumes (and one is more personal). While Yoshida was not afraid to show skin, it is a constant pet peeve of mine that the women’s sexy costumes are always more exposing then the mens (in this case not by much… but it is something I notice). The more real complaint were the shoes. The Geta Sandals worn by Bertha severely inhibited the actors ability to dance (part of what may have hurt that scene). Also the manga-esque boots worn by Faustrada may also have been the reason she could not dance and sing at the same time.
A last design mention should be made to Jacki Phillips Hair and Make up Design, which never let reality get in the way of style. The wigs were fabulous and fun, and the make up moody and evocative.
Marc Macalintal served as both the adaptor of the score and music director. I need to confess I am neither a big fan of Hip-Hop music or dance (though I have a good amount of experience working with both). Pippin‘s original orchestrations are hopelessly bound in the 1970s, when the show was written, and Dang wanted this to have a more modern feel. My biggest feeling through the show was somehow that the tempos were way to slow, and yet I question if it would have been possible for the cast to dance any faster. (I should note that this production had hands-down the best diction I have ever seen with this show, and that might be partially due to the slower tempos.) The songs I thought worked the best with the new arrangements were “Glory”, “On the Right Track,” and “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man” which had an absolutely heart braking arrangement of largely solo guitar. While the rest of it was serviceable, I only found “Extraordinary” to be… well not right. This surprises me because I also don’t like the original arrangement at all… It is possible I just don’t like that song.
This production had permission to make some textual change, most of which I thought were minor but fine. The only odd choice for me was utilizing the scene with the “head” after the battle, but cutting “the headless man” later on. This is not the first time I have seen this, and I agree that the Headless man never quite works due to the costume issue (although I have an idea of how it could), one without the other seems like a set up with no pay off. The last change (that I have been told is now or soon will be a part of the script) was the ending. The ending of Pippin has always been a bit contentious. I have read that the original writers and the original directors argued over the ending (and it is noted that the original cast album featured a slightly different ending than the original stage production, which if memory serves are both slightly different than the scripts had on the productions I worked on). In this production (like normal), the cast turn on Pippin and Catherine and Theo when they refuse to go through with the “planned” finale. They strip our three heros of their costumes, scenery and colored lights. The cast pushes them off the stage, and the three stand in the first row. Catherine asks Pippin what he’s thinking, and he sings the final verse as heard on the original cast album. The family turns to walk up the aisle and out the theatre, when the Leading player resurrects the Duck. A delighted Theo brakes away from the adults and runs onto the stage, picking it up, and begins to sing an A Cappella “Corner of the Sky.” As he sings, the lights are restored and an excited cast begins to close in on him. –hauntingly powerful.
Overall a fantastic production. It closes saturday, but if you can get to East West Players in Los Angeles, it is more than worth your time and money.