A&E

They've got magic to do

Los Altos Stage Company shines with 'Pippin'

If you're looking for an odd, funny, rather magical way to spend an evening, head to the Bus Barn Theater and catch Los Altos Stage Company's production of the musical "Pippin."

It's a show-within-a-show, as a group of ragtag, medieval-ish actors and magicians, headed by a Leading Player (Deborah Rosengaus), directly addresses the audience and promises to put on a spectacular show full of sex, magic and adventure. With an extremely loose historical basis and gleefully anachronistic setting, the story they present -- "Pippin" -- is about the titular callow prince's search for meaning and his quest to lead an extraordinary life.

Fresh out of university, Pippin (Dominic Dagdagan) is heir to Charlemagne's Holy Roman Empire and having a major identity crisis. He's young, rich, royal and male, so the world should be his oyster, but he's full of woe, desperate to find his "corner of the sky" where he can be free and happy. His dad, the emperor (Gary Giurbino) is a conceited despot. Stepmother Fastrada (Elizabeth Claire Lawrence) acts meek and mild but is plotting to replace Pippin with her own son, the doltish, macho Lewis (Michael Weiland). His sassy grandmother Berthe (who's usually played by choreographer Brett Blankenship but on the night I attended was portrayed by Ruth E. Stein) tells him to stop worrying and start living.

Pippin searches for significance in a myriad of ways -- war, romance, sex, art, religion, power -- only to come up short time and again. Along the way he meets widow Catherine (Kaitlin Zablotsky) and her young son Theo (Rohan Kumar), who'd like to make him part of the family, but he's sure he's destined for greater things than their mundane existence. The Players, in fact, have a blaze-of-glory grand finale in mind for him, but is it the right choice?

"Pippin," with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Roger O. Hirson, premiered on Broadway back in 1972, and much of its quite-delightful poppy music dates it to that era, when "rock operas" were new and bass lines were oh-so-groovy. There's also a fair bit of vaudeville and music-hall styles represented (delightful, too). Fans of Schwartz's "Godspell," which came out just a few years earlier, will find some familiarity in "Pippin," as will fans of other great '60s/'70s musicals such as "Cabaret" and "Chicago." That's partially because the legendary choreographer and director Bob Fosse worked on the latter two as well as "Pippin," and his very distinctive choreographic style -- think isolations, snaps, jazz hands -- is faithfully, and impressively, represented in Los Altos by Blankenship and her cast, as are some of his darkly comedic tendencies.

The character of Pippin makes sense as a product of 1972 as well. He could be considered a quintessential counterculture baby boomer, bristling against the conventions of the older generation and the Vietnam War (or any crusade). He, and the show named after him, are just as relevant today, though, as the quest for self-fulfillment and realization are surely eternal. Los Altos Stage Company's production (directed by Virginia Drake) cleverly brings the show into the social-media era by having the cast members frequently snap selfies, which then appear (complete with hashtags) on large screens on the sides of the stage. This serves to emphasize Pippin's obsession with a idealized identity and the differences between the "reality" performed for outside eyes and the unfiltered, imperfect reality of everyday life. The Players, too, are mostly concerned with keeping up appearances.

Costumes by Scarlett Kellum and props by Ting Na Wang are colorful, campy, representing a variety of eras. Soldiers outfits from different regions of the world and time periods, for example, show the universality and futility of war, while flesh-colored leotards lend a comical-yet-erotic vibe.

Dagdagan was in the cast of the world premiere of Schwartz's "Prince of Egypt" at TheatreWorks in Mountain View last year and thus got to work with the master himself (he also throws a nod to "Wicked," another Schwartz hit, into his "Pippin" performance). He brings the right mix of innocent idealism and inflated self-importance to the role. Rosengaus is mesmerizing as the swaggering Lead Player, whose frozen grin, carnival barker voice and mischievous eyes grow more ominous as the show goes on. She and the rest of her Players worked with a real magician to learn some tricks of the trade. Hokey though it may be, it's still dazzling to watch objects disappear and reappear, scarves change color and shape and other magic acts. Giurbino, who played Pippin 40 years ago, excels as the braggadocious old king, as does Lawrence as the seductive and duplicitous Fastrada. In fact, the whole crew is pretty great, proving once again Los Altos Stage Company is a force to be reckoned with.

"Pippin" is bittersweet and strange: cynical at times and sincere at others; a meta-theatrical experience that no doubt inspires strong feelings in one direction or another. To me, it's a marvelous, melodic exploration of existential angst. *Cue jazz hands.*

What: "Pippin."

Where: 97 Hillview Ave., Los Altos.

When: Through June 24, Wednesday-Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 3 p.m. (check online for specific schedule).

Cost: $20-$38.

Info: Go to LASC.

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