Scott Marks 2:48 p.m., May 23
It was the Broadway equivalent of a coup d'etat. Stephen Schwartz wrote the music and lyrics, and Roger O. Hirson the book, for a musical about the oldest son of Charlemagne. Pippin's father - Charles the Great - united much of Western and Central Europe. So what world was left for Pippin to conquer?
Similar to Voltaire's Candide, as Pippin searches for a meaningful life, he considers various possibilities from soldiering to social justice to a "normal" existence. He's even King for a Day.
Schwartz originally wrote the piece in college. Fresh from directing the movie verson of Cabaret, Bob Fosse thought the script was too "innocent" and "cute." So he rewrote it. Rumor/legend has it he wouldn't let Schwartz or Hirson come to rehearsals.
In effect, Fosse grafted Cabaret onto a Candide-like, coming of age story. Led by a devilish emcee, a commedia troupe stages the tale as a magic show. They try to steer the gullible Pippin away from self-discovery and toward self-immolation.
Fosse gave the book such a concept-musical spin that Schwartz said his "baby was perverted into a Broadway whore."
The acorn fell far from the tree, as did the historical Pippin, who was a hunchback and possibly illegitimate.
Diversionary Theatre and director-choreographer James Vasquez have grafted a new concept onto the musical: it takes place in a post-apocalyptic dungeon-museum (Sean Fanning strews his arresting set with detritus, much of it today's social media, in cages and on eight video screens).
The new theme: the musical's a cautionary tale. Pippin becomes a poster child for today's rampant, tweet-my-every-move narcissim (people so busy documenting their own lives they don't have time for other documenters). He must be extraordinary. There's no other choice.
In the end, and much like Candide, a disillusioned Pippin learns the virtues of cultivating one's ordinary garden.
The concept works, sort of, but the grafting often shows (making the final intent more pronounced earlier might help). Though Louis Pardo sings him to the skies, Pippin merely dabbles with the various choices and comes off as a selfish brat. And the second act, as in the original, lacks the drive of the first.
Performances, however, are consistently strong. As the Leading Player, Courtney Corey's a "black magic woman" conjuring her minions back into focus, when they go astray, and singing - nay, belting - her numbers with a sinister soprano.
Although most of the songs have a verse too many (most likely so Fosse could work more of his stage magic), each cast member has a solo and performs admirably, especially Megan Carmitchel's sweet "There he was," and Wendy Maples' "No time at all" (a grandmother's view of life: "when your best days are yester-/the rest-re twice as dear"). Charlie Reuter's three-piece back-up band spices every song.
Along with being someone who actually understands "deconstruction" (as her program notes prove), Shirley Pierson's costumes do just that. Each one's a melange of conflicting signs: Charlemagne (the always engaging Andy Collins), for example, wears a medal-laced General Patton coat, Levis with a yellow Confederate stripe down the side, and a medieval crown - and plays a video game.
Pippin's part of an exciting trend in San Diego theater. In the last year or so, small theaters are doing more and more musicals. Ion, New Village Arts, North Coast Rep and others have mounted shows on stages that could barely park an SUV. The lose the epic size of the originals, but gain an intimacy that's genuinely appealing.
Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard, University Heights, playing through October 14.