Arts & EntertainmentArts & Culture

An anime/hip-hop/martial arts take on 'Pippin'

Animation (genre)Disc JockeysSportsDanceEntertainmentBob FosseRadio Industry

Of all the narcissistic navel-gazing shows to emerge from the 1970s, "Pippin" is among the most flagrantly self-indulgent. The entire story revolves around its eponymous hero's search for meaning in his life, an episodic quest that takes him from the battlefield to a drug-infused orgy to political activism to a new life on a sort of organic farm collective. Imagine Berkeley in the 9th century, and you'll get the gist.

Of course, Pippin ultimately finds meaning in elemental concerns of love and family. But the path to that dubious epiphany is so maddeningly peripatetic that one suspects Bob Fosse, director-choreographer and de facto collaborator of the original 1972 production, was deeply under the influence during the creative process.

A musical so unalterably a part of the '70s zeitgeist seems to defy revival, yet director Tim Dang takes on the challenge with surprising success in his meticulous and boldly revisionist production at East West Players. Reinventing the mandala, as it were, Dang offers us an anime/hip-hop version.

You heard that right. Now an anime "Pippin" may seem, at first glance, an arbitrary stylistic choice. But when a show is made up almost entirely of smoke and mirrors in the first place, a few more glinting reflective surfaces lend unexpected depth.

Naturally, that lineup of mirrors, with its deceptive glimpse into the infinite, is a fun-house illusion. Still the operative conceit here is fun -- and there's plenty to be had here, despite a largely unsalvageable second act. Roger O. Hirson's badly dated book is buoyed by Stephen Schwartz's durable score, which contains enough memorable numbers to compensate for the occasional clunker. Under Marc Macalintal's excellent musical direction, the music takes on a pile-driving urgency, replete with the scratching stylings of an onstage disc jockey (DJ LinoType).

Here, Pippin (Ethan Le Phong) has been reduced to a spiky-haired, barely post-pubescent anime hero, a tack that works well early on in his quest, as he bickers with his father Charlemagne (resonant Mike Hagiwara) over the prerogatives of power and politics. When Pippin falls into bed with wealthy widow Catherine (Maegan McConnell), however, Le Phong's unadulterated boyishness does not serve.

Despite a few line flubs on opening night, Le Phong scores high with his soulful voice and youthful ardor, and athletically compelling Marcus Choi deserves much credit -- make that street cred -- for his performance as the Leading Player, the manipulative guru who orchestrates the action. Jenn Aedo is hilarious as Pippin's conniving stepmother Fastrada, who oh-so-subtly flexes her amply displayed superstructure to punch up her laugh lines. Clad as an aging geisha, winning Gedde Watanabe revels in his drag turn as Pippin's grandmother, Berthe.

Naomi Yoshida's costumes frequently dazzle; even though the actors nimbly navigate Alan E. Muraoka's vertiginous set clad in sky-high platform shoes and fetish boots, their performances are a triumph of talent over footgear. Dan Weingarten's typically virtuosic lighting and Muraoka's wonderful projection design -- a blend of anime, Peter Max, Escher and Spirograph -- provide added pizazz to the bounty of eye candy. Amid the glitz, the standout of the evening is the galvanic choreography by Blythe Matsui and Jason Tyler Chong, who supplant Fosse's indelible original choreography with a dizzying blend of hip-hop, martial arts and high style.

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