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Sam Harris and Michael Arden in Pippin
(Photo © Michael Lamont)
It's been over 32 years since Bob Fosse unveiled Stephen Schwartz's Pippin upon an unsuspecting Broadway audience. Among theatergoers raised on Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe, a rock opera filled with sex, S&M, and amputated limbs tossed about must have dropped more than one jaw. Thanks in large part to Fosse's trademark choreography, Pippin was a big hit. Now at Reprise! at UCLA, armed with a strong cast and a stunning performance of the title role, Pippin shines like new.

The concept of the show is even more subversive today, as "reality" TV programs saturate the airwaves, than in the '70s. Imagine the ultimate game show led by David Koresh. Pippin's Leading Player (Tony nominee Sam Harris) pulls an unsuspecting stranger out of the audience onto the stage to enact the role of Pippin, son and heir to King Charlemagne. For this particular performance, an unassuming boy (Michael Arden) assumes the role. His chore: to find fulfillment in the universe or submit to the "Grand Finale" -- a mysterious climax. Pippin attempts to attain contentment through familial love, which is impossible since his dad's a tyrannical bore, his step-mom Fastrada (Luba Mason) is Lady Macbeth in a mini skirt, and his half-brother Lewis (Abe Sylvia) is a twit. Next, he experiences joys of the flesh but no climax, and his efforts to overthrow his father only lead to Pippin becoming a carbon copy of Charlemagne. Lastly, Pippin hopes that the love of a widow (Jean Louisa Kelly) and her son, Theo, will lead to gratification. It doesn't. According to the Leading Player, only in the "Grand Finale" will Pippin achieve his lofty goal.

Pippin is full of light pop music, magic, and soft-shoe dances, but it has one of the darkest and most complex themes in musical theater history. Watching Pippin fall into all the obvious traps of life, we are left with the proposition that seeking fulfillment is a doomed venture. In 1972, the Charles Manson trial had only ended a year before, but the Leading Player and his cohorts are much more of the vein of cults that America had yet to invent. It's almost as if the hottest ticket on 45th street was warning America of things to come and we were too busy tapping our toes and whistling "Magic to Do" to notice.

Not everything in the show remains fresh. The problem with such a revolutionary piece is that, eventually, time catches up with and finally surpasses the concept. The "hot-chaas," "doo-daas," and other asides from the cast members now come across as trite, and the script is filled with sex jokes more suited to a Minsky's Burlesque show. The character of the racy, geriatric Berthe isn't so shockingly funny after eight years of The Golden Girls. But the choreography -- by Dan Mojica, in the style of Fosse -- is lustrous. Hats are so essential to the show that they're almost supporting players; some of the actors wear less clothing than porn stars do; hips are lethal weapons; hands work independently from the rest of the body.

The choreography would never work without a masterful ensemble, and the Players here are dynamic when they move, though their singing and line readings come off half-cocked; I'm not sure if they're simply better at dancing than at singing and acting or if the issue is that they're poorly miked. Only Sam Harris seems awkward in his dancing, as if he were anxiously auditioning for a room full of Ben Vereens (who originated the role on Broadway). From the opening number, Harris often seems out of breath, and there's a lack of fluidity to his performance. This is frustrating, because the Leading Player needs to be the spine of the production.

Michael Arden's remarkably tender portrayal of Pippin brings a depth to the role that's rarely been seen before. Arden evinces childlike earnestness and yearning in his first number, "Corner of the Sky." Part of what makes him so endearing is his pudgy baby face, with a smile that brightens the stage, eyes that shine, cheeks that rise so high they almost hit his eyebrows, and a pronounced chin of the Jay Leno order. He's a lost puppy, and the audience wants to nurture him. Arden has some fabulous comic moments, particularly during the "With You" dance number, when eight striking women seduce him; here, he's all flushed, as if he had just discovered the Playboy Channel while his parents were in the next room. In the final scene, his exuberance and naiveté prevent him from believing what horrors may be in store for him; his mocking, aw-shucks grin seems to say, "You guys must be kidding." It's chilling.

Sam Harris and the cast of Pippin
(Photo © Michael Lamont)
There may be no drippier role in Broadway history than Pippin's Catherine, who gets three of the worst songs in the show. So it's remarkable that Jean Louisa Kelly has infused the role with vigor, wit, and intelligence, bringing complexity to the bucolic widow. Even her handling of "I Guess I'll Miss the Man" stirs pathos. Pippin and Catherine often appear to be a limp couple at the end of the tale, but Kelly and Arden bring heat to their love; rather than the least of several evils, their union seems the best of all worldly options.

Abe Sylvia humorously turns Lewis into a screaming queen of the Chelsea sort, with an affected posture and a pronounced lisp. Mimi Hines brings class to the bawdy Berthe, and Conrad John Schuck is appropriately pompous and dense as Charlemagne. Luba Mason gives a rather subtle performance as the scheming Fastrada; she doesn't milk the jokes but lets them slide off her tongue, thereby making them all the more delicious.

Director Gordon Hunt seems to have given the cast a lot of freedom, allowing Arden and Kelly to thrive while leaving Harris abandoned. Most of the leads are dressed in Middle Age-style frocks, but costume designer Alex Jaeger has gone to town in garbing the Players, utilizing enough fishnet material to satisfy the Old Man in the Sea. The production is notable for its sequined miniskirts, leather jockstraps, chains, and loads of bare skin; many of these costumes could be worn to a fetish party, but they are well suited to this unusual musical. Scenic designer Bradley Kaye keeps the stage largely bare, save for a few chairs. There is only one necessary set piece, for the Grand Finale. The contraption should be visually commanding and frightening but, other than a big Vegas-style sign and a weak light to represent flames, there's not much here. If I hadn't been familiar with the show, I'm not sure that I would have understood what was going at this moment based on the set.

Certain facets of Pippin will never go out of style while others could use some re-conception. A director willing to sweep away some of the Fosse-isms might be able to drag the show into the new millennium. When that happens, Pippin will be ready for a Broadway revival -- and, if the director is lucky, Michael Arden will again be available to play the title role.

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