Tuesday, May 9, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Theater Review

5th Avenue revisits "Pippin," that quirky 1970s musical

Seattle Times theater critic

Now playing

"Pippin," Tuesdays-Sundays through May 21 at the 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; $19-$71 ( or 206-625-1418). )

A rock musical that's like a medieval mystery play wrapped around an episode of the hot '70s TV variety show "Laugh-In"?

If you can't quite get your head around that concept, neither can the new 5th Avenue Theatre production of "Pippin." This earnestly splashy revival of the misfit 1972 Broadway hit is by turns ludicrous and tunesome, trippy and sloppy.

Historical context: There was an actual Prince Pippin, the son of 8th-century King Charlemagne. That guy was a hunchback who became a monk. But his theatrical alter-ego is a Candidelike hippie seeker, portrayed here with fresh-faced, sure-voiced zest by Louis Hobson.

As conceived by composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz and librettist Roger O. Hirson, the latter Pippin is definitively a creature of 1970s Broadway, where brash musical artists were lustily breaking the rules with rock beats, anachronistic fables and antiestablishment hullabaloo.

At the 5th Avenue, Hobson gets plucked from the audience by a devilish strolling player (Keith Byron Kirk), to enact an Everyman's searching for meaning and fulfillment.

As his soaring anthem "Corner of the Sky" presages, Pippin seeks greatness as a warrior, a sexual libertine, a political activist, a family-man farmer. But nothing satisfies him for long — not even the Oedipal thrill of offing his despotic dad, Charlemagne (Jim Gall).

Message: Questing is fine, then it's time to grow up and settle down.

In this outing, the blend of goofy irreverence and showy sincerity in "Pippin" feels more curious, than funny or poignant. What dates best is Schwartz's score, an invigorating mesh of rockin' riffs, robust Broadway lyricism and harmonic pizazz.

Director David Armstrong's cast boasts the singers to sell the full-bodied tunes, starting with the inviting opener "Magic to Do." There's Hobson and the soul-fired Kirk. Also Jane Lanier as saucy Queen Fastrada; Mimi Hines leading the vaudeville sing-along "No Time At All" as sage granny Berthe; and Kim Huber as Pippin's gentle love interest Catherine.

What a drag, though, that the vocals and the rollicking backup sounds of conductor Richard Gray's onstage band were periodically marred by sputtering, sludgy miking at a recent matinee.

Also off: Armstrong's inability to find a fresh, unified tone or look for this mythical identity crisis, as retold by a troupe of Vegas-style chorines.

Bradley Reed's heavily bespangled costumes (even the Middle Ages battle gear has sequined codpieces), are standard-issue '70s kitschy.

And the elementary dances (choreographed by Armstrong and associates Lanier and Daniel Cruz,) add little in the way of substance or attitude. Not even the "Glory" antiwar number, updated with caricatures of Iraq war planners Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, et al., hits a nerve.

This "Pippin" doesn't do much to refute the belief that the show's initial success was primarily the work of famed director Bob Fosse. He reportedly hijacked the musical from its creators, turning it into a caustic, razzle-dazzle spree of his own bent.

Schwartz and Hirson later revamped "Pippin," restoring to it the kinder tone and upbeat ending Fosse had nixed.

This is the version often seen on college campuses. And the 5th Avenue airing of it, may well delight some "Pippin" fans who've waited a long while to see a large-scale revival of the show in Seattle. For others, though, it's a disappointment.

Misha Berson:

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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