Picture a hundred thirty or so dancing, glow-in-the-dark fingertips spiraling and swirling around on an otherwise pitch-black stage as the orchestra launches into “Magic To Do” and you’ll have some idea of just how fresh and new the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center revival of Pippin is. Then again, few musicals lend themselves to as many different interpretations as the Stephen Schwartz classic. Reprise did it sexy and Chicago-esque some years back, East West Players took an Asian hip-hop approach to the material, and Deaf West at the Taper featured not one but two Pippins, one deaf and one hearing. SCVAC describes their Pippin as taking place in the “intriguing and wacky world of Steampunk Carnivale,” and an exciting new interpretation it is.

 Musical theater aficionados know Pippin as the nearly 2000-performance 1972 Broadway smash that introduced Stephen Schwartz to the world. Songs like “Magic To Do,” “Corner Of The Sky,” “Morning Glow,” and “I Guess I’ll Miss The Man” have entered the pop/Broadway music lexicon even as its title character’s quest to be “Extraordinary” (“When you’re extraordinary, you gotta do extraordinary things”) has taken him, and four decades of audiences, on an extraordinary journey indeed.

Suggested by the life of the eldest son of 8th Century Emperor Charlemagne, Pippin (book by Roger Hirson) opens with yet another of the monarch’s homecomings from battle. Young Pippin, longing to prove himself to his father, convinces Charlemagne to let him join in the fight against the hated Visigoths, though it doesn’t take long for our young hero to discover the truth of the proverbial “War is not the answer,” and he soon retreats to the countryside. There, on his grandmother Berthe’s estate, Pippin tries on for size the “Simple Joys” of rustic living—and finds them lacking as well. Sex is the next stop on Pippin’s quest, followed by an attempt to revolutionize society, even if it means bumping off Dad to do it. Despite all these attempts, Pippin still finds his life as unfulfilled and unfulfilling as ever even as Act One draws to a close. Fortunately, Pippin The Musical still has another act up its sleeve.

To tell this story, Schwartz and Hirson took a surreal route that was hardly par for the course on Broadway in the early 1970s, an approach that featured director-choreographer Bob Fosse’s signature turned-in knees, jutting hips, sideways shuffling, and hand-and-shoulder rolls, moves you’d hardly expect from a musical set in medieval times.

 Steampunk’s blend of Victorian styles with sci-fi fantasy fits SVCAC’s version of Pippin to a T, and Randon Pool’s fantastical costumes are indeed a treat to behold, even as choreographer Becky Castells abandons those Fosse-esque moves for something far more … Steampunkian if you will.

Credit director Fred Helsel for this ingenious new approach, with pop references to Tebowing, Boys Gone Wild, Star Wars, etc. adding a clever contemporary touch as his splendid cast of thirteen for bring Helsel’s vision to exhilarating life.

 Cal Lutheran student Brenden Kyle MacDonald gives the title character a fresh-faced innocence and appeal that makes for an overall winning performance, and one in perfect contrast with the wild-and-crazy bunch who surround him.

Along with “Nicest Kid In Town” MacDonald, SVCAC’s Pippin reunites many of the stars of January’s fabulous Hairspray, including charismatic Keenon Hooks as Leading Player, selling “Magic To Do,” “Simple Joys,” and “Right Track” with showmanship and pizzazz. Bart Sumner’s imposing Charlemagne and Veronica Scheyving’s feisty Berthe earn laughter and applause as well. Andrew Allen is a sizzling standout as Pippin’s self-obsessed brother Lewis and so is Carolyn Freeman Champ’s divalicious Fastrada. (The mother-son duo’s borderline incestuous “Spread A Little Sunshine” is a particular treat, and though it is likely to get social conservatives’ knickers in a twist, as will the production’s pansexual “orgy” sequence, there’s truly little there to offend any but the most prudish.) Vivacious triple-threat Jamie Whittington Studer (Hairspray’s Tracy Turnblad) once again proves herself a star in the making in her irresistible turn as Catherine, the widow who finds Pippin’s foot his most appealing asset, and Austin Miller is a hoot as her inexplicably Cockney-accented beanpole of a son Theo.

 Providing tiptop support in a variety of roles, costumes, and masks, are a smashing bunch of Steampunkian Players—Allen, Kyle Cooknick, Tori Cusack (doubling as dance captain), Steampunk consulant Kimberly Kiley, Adam E. McDonald, Miller, Studer, and Megan Tisler.

Musical director Gary Poirot (another Hairspray alum) conducts the onstage (though mostly hidden) orchestra—Lucas Miler on drums, Jodi Morse on percussion, Gabe Gonzales on guitar, Kevin Hart on bass guitar, and Poirot on keyboards, all of whom provide bang-up instrumental support, with a Steampunk-appropriate hint of the steam-propelled 19th Century calliope in the mix.

Though Pool’s costumes are the production’s standout design element, Seth Kamenow’s production design with its circus side show motif, Helsel’s imaginative props (featuring glow in the dark sabers and futuristic ray guns), and Lacey Stewart’s lighting and sound design are winners too. Alex Lastort is assistant choreographer and Jan Carr assistant costumer.

 Pippin is produced by David Ralphe and Helsel. Carol Harris is production stage manager, Kimberly Kiley assistant stage manager, and Shannon Lewis rehearsal stage manager.

Few musicals lend themselves so readily to re-interpretation as Pippin, and it is exciting indeed to see it done “Steampunk Carnevale” style. A worthy follow-up to one of the best Hairsprays I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a bunch), Pippin gives local residents something to sing about, and Angelinos a reason to zip up to Simi Valley for an evening or afternoon of intrigue, humor, romance, illusion, battles, miracles, and magic.

Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, 3050 Los Angeles Avenue, Simi Valley.

–Steven Stanley
May 5, 2012
Photos: JGEARY Photo

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