Taking ‘Pippin’ across cultures

Special to The Times

BLYTHE MATSUI holds her arm straight out, hand flat, palm up, while rotating her body. Dressed in a white lace tank top cropped above her navel and camouflage cargo pants rolled up to reveal high-heeled leather boots, the dancer-choreographer and former Laker Girl turns to Mike Moh, an extreme martial arts specialist, and says: “Blade open.”

Instead of a music video or black belt challenge, Moh, who has performed stunts with Jackie Chan, and Matsui launch into “Magic to Do” from the musical “Pippin.”

“That’s a dance step, ‘blade open,’ ” director Tim Dang says, looking on. “That is not in my dance vocabulary.”


Dang, artistic director for East West Players, is one of the few people in the room who, at 49, is old enough to have seen Bob Fosse’s original 1972 Broadway production of “Pippin.” To attract young audiences, he’s updating the classic musical with an anime and hip-hop theme.

The idea for East West Players’ production, which opens Wednesday, was spurred by good-natured prodding from Stephen Schwartz, the songwriter behind “Pippin,” “Godspell” and “Wicked,” when he and Dang would see each other at an annual theater conference. “He always ribs me,” Dang says, “that East West has done so much Stephen Sondheim, that ‘you never do my work -- the other SS.’ ” Finally, Dang gave in.

Although the show is loosely based on the son of Charlemagne, who ruled in 8th century Europe, the language is contemporary and the music is 1970s pop rock. “Pippin is obviously a contemporary story grafted onto a historical milieu, and when done successfully, sort of both things are happening at once,” Schwartz says.

Anachronisms and young men on quests are frequent traits of anime, the American term for Japanese animation, known for its hand-drawn style, big eyes, dramatic lighting and wide variety of genres -- including kids shows as well as porn. Dang’s main models were two series by Shinichir{omacronl} Watanabe, the space western “Cowboy Bebop” and the action comedy “Samurai Champloo.”

Schwartz is accustomed to reinterpretations of the musical about a young prince who goes into the world to seek his life’s purpose, trying out war, politics, sex and even domestic life. “It’s not so specifically set in a place and a time that you can’t fool around with it,” he says by phone from his Connecticut home.

The melding of anime and hip-hop into “Pippin” fits the pan-cultural attitude Dang observes among young people at East West. “A lot of the younger audiences, the younger performers, don’t want to be defined by race anymore. They’re not necessarily Asian anymore, or African American or Latino,” Dang says. “They’re this urban, metropolitan, cosmopolitan kind of generation.”


Dang’s initial impulse to connect “Pippin” to hip-hop was inspired by Fosse. “Bob Fosse’s choreography is very sexy; it deals with a lot of isolation of body parts -- lots of shoulders, lots of hips, lots of knees and all that. I see that correlation in hip-hop.”

As he works with the actors during a rehearsal, Dang tells his cast to mimic the cool, understated style of anime. “We thought that everything that we do onstage has to be dead serious, as if it’s life or death,” Dang says. “There’s a lot less ‘Ta da!’ ”

For Gedde Watanabe, best known as the foreign exchange student in the 1984 film “Sixteen Candles,” this means a change in tone. “My tendency is to go hammy all the way,” he says. “I have to kind of squash it down a bit.”

In keeping with the themes of the show, musical director Marc Macalintal has re-orchestrated songs to create hip-hop rhythms. This version of “Pippin” features a DJ who mixes music on turntables. Converting the songs into hip-hop sometimes proved challenging. “You get songs like ‘Magic to Do,’ where the melody line is so not hip-hop,” says Marcus Choi, who stars as the Leading Player. “If anything, there’s a sort of a pop element to it.”

Matsui is co-choreographing with Jason Tyler Chong, who has danced in Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera videos. The dancers use not only the hip rolls of hip-hop but also the gravity-defying moves of karate -- all in the service of “visually trying to make a magical world,” Matsui says.

Other touches include sword and spear routines during “War Is a Science.” In “Spread a Little Sunshine,” Jenn Aedo, who plays Fastrada, uses her professional bubble-blowing skills. “With You” is a suggestive rave, says Chong. “Not fully S&M;,” he says. “I’m going to insinuate some of it. This is a sexy ‘Pippin.’ ”


The stage resembles a dance club, with characters perched on platforms to evoke anime’s unpredictable camera angles. A large projection screen features “variations on Japanese woodblock prints with a kicked-up anime color scheme,” designer Alan Muraoka explains. During Pippin’s politics phase, live video will be shown.

The Leading Player has sunglasses and a long black trench coat, a la Keanu Reeves in “The Matrix.” Charles, Pippin’s dad, is a Transformer-like figure. The chorus girls could blend in in the Harajuku district of Tokyo, where young women rebel against the rigidity of Japan by dressing like punk schoolgirls, Lolitas and other outrageous personas.

With so many cross-cultural allusions, how will the show fit together? “I’m not sure I understand how it’s going to work,” Schwartz says, “but I look forward to seeing it.”



Where: David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso St., L.A.

When: Opens Wednesday; 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays

Ends: June 8

Price: $45 to $50

Contact: (213) 625-7000