The Unbearable Lightness of Pippin

As musical comedies go, Roger O. Hirson and Stephen Schwartz's Pippin isn't a sterling example of how far you can push the genre. The book is undercooked, the score is largely unmemorable, and the source material-loosely based on the early life of the eldest son of Charlemagne-is as far-fetched as its concept: a ragtag band of commedia dell'arte clowns led by a Leading Player who magically conjures up and eventually dispels the show's "real" characters.

The reason we remember Pippin at all is its phenomenal four-and-a-half year run on Broadway, a reign that had less to do with its merits than with the rotten state of Broadway at the time. It didn't hurt that it was directed and conceptually masterminded by Bob Fosse at the height of his success (1972). (Musical-history note: Pippin's long run was also due to a dubious distinction. It was the first musical to launch a TV-advertising campaign, which kick-started flagging attendance.)

But the current Prism Productions show at the Brea Curtis Theatre manages the impossible: it reanimates the mostly lifeless play. This Gary Krinke-directed production is sparse on the smoke and mirrors normally associated with a show that talks so much of magic and fantasy. But instead of diluting what little substance there is in the tale, the relatively minimalist production shows that Pippin is actually a quite earnest and even charming musical.

It's an odd success. The clowns (billed here as magicians) don't look and rarely feel like the commedia dell'arte caravan they're supposed to be. The Leading Player never quite seems as diabolical or commanding as he should be. But while light on effects and stage magic, this Pippin has heart-and even an interesting strain of compassion.

Rather than emphasizing the Leading Player and his gypsy troupe, this Pippin truly feels like it's about the eponymous character, a young man desperate to find his place-and a little bit of truth-in the world. That makes the play's ending (in which the veil between the audience and the performers is lifted) oddly effective, as opposed to silly and forced.

Charlemagne was the ninth century's towering ruler, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, slaughterer of infidels in the name of Christ. He was also a keeper of some spark of European civilization in the depths of the Dark Ages. Not much is known of Charlemagne's Pippin-or "Pepin," as he was called-except that he was a highborn hunchback, a (literal) bastard and part of a late-eighth-century monarchical plot.

Hirson and Schwartz took that relatively thin empirical evidence and turned Pepin into Pippin, crafting a character who embarks on a Candide-like search for truth and meaning. He tries books, religion, war, politics, orgies and even good old-fashioned palace intrigue by skewering his father like a fatted calf. But all is emptiness-until he meets a rather plain widow with a small child and a small plot of land. Only then does Pippin begin to sense what true happiness means. This back-to-nature, enjoy-the-simple-things-in-life lifestyle, while completely honorable and moral (if you're not interested in achieving anything greater than, say, living in harmony with the Earth), doesn't exactly make for great drama. That's why the second act of Pippin-after he flees the palace in shame-is so woefully thin.

Generally stripped of high concept, this Pippin lives and dies on the strength of its performances. Ryan Holihan's Pippin is, fortunately, quite strong, bringing some real depth to a character who can come across as a whiner. Holihan wires his character's aching search for a life worth living as well as the arrogance of anyone who feels he or she deserves such an extraordinary existence. Christopher Spencer's Charles (or Charlemagne) is played with great flair and humor. His Charles is ruthless and comical, real and oddly sympathetic. Another standout is Molly Prather, who as Pippin's scheming, sensual mother-in-law, Fastrada, wants Pippin and Charles out of the way to pave the rise to the throne of her favorite step-son, Lewis (the hunky Tom Proprofsky, who could have been better served with more moments to display his acting talent and fewer moments when he seems to be onstage merely to flex his well-developed chest).

The only main player who disappointed was Aristotle Rector's Leading Player-although we give him extra credit for having a hell of a name. The Leading Player is The Role in this play. He should own this stage: he's the conductor, puppeteer, stage manager, God and the devil all rolled into one. He should be having a hell of a good time. But Rector's vocal projection was so weak I could barely hear him, and he seemed to be on standby for much of the performance. He springs to life during the finale, when Pippin is forced to choose between his thus-far fruitless search for an extraordinary life and the simple existence of home and family. Pippin's choice enrages the Leading Player and his troupe, who demand the colored lights be dimmed onstage, silence the band, and force Pippin and his newfound family to remove their costumes and makeup. This ending usually plays as a mere sham, a rather sophomoric attempt at injecting some Luigi Pirandello avant-gardism into a fairly transparent play. But because this production is staged so simply-without a lot of technical gimmickry-it's easier to buy into the ending. The audience has had to fill in the gaps between concept and performance the entire show, basically making it a partner in the whole process; when the fourth wall crumbles in the final scene, it feels natural and effortless, proving once again that the most potent weapon in the theatrical arsenal is the one most often overlooked: the audience's imagination.

Pippin at Brea Curtis Theatre, 1 Civic Center Circle, Brea, (714) 990-7722. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through March 14. $10-$20.

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