With its veiled references to Vietnam, civil unrest, Nixon, political assassinations and spiritual unease, Steven Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson's 1972 musical Pippinis very much a product of its disillusioned, about-to-peak-and-burn decade. The title character is the offspring of Charlemagne (who became king of the Franks in 771 A.D.), but even he seems contemporary. He's a hippie fresh out of school, dissatisfied with his wealthy existence, a man on a quest for a better experience because "there has to be something more."
In short, it's time for a road trip, and Pippin's takes him into battle, revolution and assassination. A stint as a king with socialist leanings earns him the disquieting realization that he can't make everybody happy. Abandoning the kingdom, he goes agrarian but hates working with his hands. He meets a lonely widow and considers settling down, but he can't decide if he should simply accept his dissatisfaction and stay with her or continue his elusive search for something better. The strength of the musical—and of this Chance Theatre production—is that even when he thinks he's found an answer, Pippin's decisions always come back to bite him—and, by implication, the audience—on the ass.
The play's merits can't fix its conflicting messages, though: on the one hand, it says you should settle for the simpler things in life because the bigger concerns—like conscience and social justice—don't matter when you have a warm, loving body at home. On the other hand, it warns us that while searching for meaning leads to self-immolation, "family values" can be a living death that doesn't look much better.
Despite Marie Madera's Fosse-on-a-budget choreography, the unflattering (and uncredited) costumes and uneven community-theater-level acting, director Martie Ramm keeps things moving. And if the cast can't act, at least it can sing. More important, Ramm understands Schwartz and Hirson's through line and never shies from its dark conclusion. Because she doesn't hold her audience's hand by lightening things up, she delivers the final message in all its bleak glory. At play's end, when Pippin chooses a life with a family that makes him "feel trapped," standing in the shadows, stranded and stripped, it's hard not to see yourself standing there with him.
Pippin at the Chance Theatre, 5576 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills, (714) 821-6903. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through Sept. 16. $15-$18.