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Liberal parents take note: 'Pippin' is fun for kids

January 27, 2009 |  1:13 pm
Pippin_50

I may be in danger of becoming an audience mom. In Los Angeles, it's easy to become a stage (or set) parent;  but instead of pushing my 5-year-old to start rehearsing for "American Idol," I'm training her young to be a Class A culture vulture. Yes, that was Bebe darting around recently, giggling at the fleshy art of Louise Bourgeois at MOCA, and dancing wildly to No Age on the plaza of the Getty last summer.

Kids' music, kids' movies, kids' whatever are great; I agree that some jokes and lessons play better to young minds. And I know that child-free folks often prefer that loud little people be cordoned off within their own universe. Yet often, art doesn't play by such segregationist rules. I do have my limits: If the environment is too polite and contained for her boisterous presence, or if the images are too complex to talk about at her level, we'll skip it. But if a cultural event provides a window in for a kid to learn something and experience some joy, we're there.

Our latest adventure was one that some might deem inappropriate for children -- more on that after the jump. But Bebe loved it, and two days later she still can't stop thinking, singing and talking about it. So I'm standing up right now and saying: Hipster parents, take your kids to see "Pippin" as performed by Deaf West Theatre and the Center Theatre Group, now playing at the Mark Taper Forum.

Charles McNulty's review addresses some of the show's shortcomings, including a facile plot and songs that strongly reflect the self-actualized vibe of the shag rug era ("Gotta find my corner of the sky-y-y-y-!"). Dads who rock and mommies who love disco might balk at the jazz-hands razzle-dazzle of it all. Yet to this lifelong show-tune queen, Stephen Schwartz's music hits that sweet spot where schlock blossoms into rock, and the book by Roger O. Hirson works as a fairy tale, which makes "Pippin" all the more appropriate for kids.

WARNING: ADULT THEMES AHEAD -- OR A TICKLE-FEST

There is one stumbling block. "Pippin" is racy; Bob Fosse, that great satyr, was the guy who made it a Broadway smash in 1972. Some parents might want to just stop reading this now, because I'm about to argue that happy, bespangled, modified bump-and-grind sensuality isn't such a bad thing for kids to witness. And in this production of "Pippin," it's played for laughs and tenderness, not heat.

"Pippin" fictionalizes the story of the heir to the 8th century king Charlemagne, following him from adolescence through various tests as he reaches maturity. The Taper production splits the leading role between Tyrone Giordano, a deaf actor who signs his part, and Michael Arden, who sings and speaks the lines. Pippin's journey hits all the fairy-tale marks -- family drama, war, wonderfully staged magic tricks and, that ultimate end for any prince or princess, love.

Two scenes celebrate fleshly pleasures. One, a beautifully staged scene on a giant bed involving eight actors, is spicy from an adult perspective, but abstract enough that Bebe thought it was a tickle-fest. The other puts an intimate encounter between Pippin and his dream girl behind a sign. These moments could embarrass older children, who can read the word "SEX," which appears on the placards that actors display.

Yet that word (as well as a few expletives scattered throughout the show) is the only truly explicit element of "Pippin's" sensual display. Otherwise, there's some playful tush-grabbing, skimpy costumes and a double-entendre or four. It's all wrapped up in a storyline that ultimately extols marriage and family as the most meaningful path in life -- a message even Rick Warren would endorse.

CLEANER THAN BRITNEY

I see two reasons for parents to let their children in on this level of raciness. One, they're getting it anyway, through the Rihanna and Britney songs they can't help absorbing, the tarty fashions sold to them in the mall and children's movies such as "Beverly Hills Chihuahua," whose suggestive (and catty and consumeristic)  undertones are meant to tickle parents but reach the little ones too.

This is especially true of hipster-parent progeny: They're clad in T-shirts that celebrate the Ramones, a band with songs about sniffing glue and beating up brats, and encouraged to shake their tiny moneymakers to "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" so they can become YouTube stars. We seem willing to style our tots as tiny adults, but not always to engage them in conversations about what those gestures mean.

Two, because "Pippin" is a fairy tale, it contains several layers of meaning. Children will likely take away what they can handle. Besides simply being beautiful, fast-paced and fun, this production of "Pippin" offers a way in to talking with your child about what it means to grow up, and to love. The deaf actors add the extra layer of meaning that carries the musical into a new place.

Gesturing their feelings as well as voicing them, using the evocative power of American Sign Language, Giordano and his fellow players (the entire cast signs, hearing-impaired or not) bring a gentleness to the play's bawdy side that makes it more loving than explicitly sexual. Children, often more in touch with the pleasure of being in their bodies than are their parents, experience these gestures as delightful, not lewd.

My daughter was particularly impressed with "Love Song," the romantic number that has Giordano's Pippin and Catherine (Melissa van der Schyff) seated on the floor, pledging their troth. "Remember the scene, Mommy, where they kiss their hands and then touch each other's cheeks?" she says. These simple yet poetic expressions of intimacy impressed Bebe more than anyone's sassy hip thrust.

So, parents -- hipster and otherwise -- if you're not easily offended, go see "Pippin." Take the kids. Try to get an aisle seat just in case a bathroom break is needed, because there's no intermission. And be ready to talk about it afterward -- along with tolerating endless noisy reprises of "Corner of the Sky."

-- Ann Powers

Photo: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

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