BWW Reviews: Magical PIPPIN at Camp IDS Musical Theatre
The rehearsal process is one of the most enjoyable parts of a theatrical experience. It's where creative mistakes are allowed to be made, and where an actor can grow and have time to discover his or her character and motivations. For community theatre shows, a musical takes at least two months to prepare, oftentimes longer. Professional groups can take from two weeks to six weeks, depending how intricate the show is. Guess how long the recent IDS production of PIPPIN took for rehearsal?
Five days. That's right, five days!
Talented teacher and director Seth Travaglino held auditions in June and July, made sure the cast (all teenagers) had scripts to memorize on their own, and then started the rehearsal process last Monday, July 28th. Acting, singing, choreography all done in that limited time. After seeing the production, I realized that even though they had less than a week to rehearse, it's the quality of rehearsal time, not the quantity that matters. Because, despite obvious messiness in the production, the cast does a phenomenal job of bringing Stephen Schwartz's Brechtian musical to life. You would think they had been rehearsing it for months.
PIPPIN is about a prince, son of Charlemagne, who is searching for significance and meaning in his life. The show has its own Greek Chorus--a group of face-painted Players--led by the Leading Player. Usually one person plays this part (which won the Tony Award for Ben Vereen in 1972, and more recently for Patina Miller for the revival). But Travaglino took a different approach. Three talented young performers (Briana Blandfort, Mary Olive Gautheir and LJ Glanton) turn the Leading Player from a solo to a trio. At first I was put off by this change; it was like having three Emcees in Cabaret instead of one Kit Kat Club star. But as the show continued, I started appreciating these three theatrical dynamos, and they won me over with their showmanship and ownership of the stage. All of them were spellbinding. They worked amazingly well together, especially on the "Manson Trio," and it's now hard to imagine just one person portraying this iconic role. Special mention must go out to Gautheir who was simply stunning onstage; it was a star turn even though she had only a third of the usual Leading Player responsibilities.
In the title role, the versatile Michael Mekus is so wonderfully engaging that we truly care about his fate. It's a reactive part that turns defiantly proactive at the end, and it's extremely difficult to make him exciting, but Mekus succeeds hands down. His enthusiasm and youthful verve are nothing short of enthralling, and he sang his numbers beautifully. His rendition of show's most famous song, "Corner of the Sky" (which was actually recorded and released as a single by the Jackson 5 back in the early 1970's), was simply gorgeous; he didn't push it like so many young actors tend to do; he sang it in character and nailed that final note. "With You" and "On the Right Track" were also standouts. The only number of his that didn't connect was the Act 1 finale, "Morning Glow," which lacked the necessary punch of the rest of the show.
Several moments really showcase the talent of Mekus. The first is when he falls for the widow Catherine (a marvelously appealing Andrea Bush); their love scene is very sweet and he gives himself over to the gentle, loving side of his character. (Both performers were quite courageous and made Act 2 fly entertainingly by; and Mekus showed off his sheer professionalism by being able to do this, and sing wonderfully, without a mic much of the time, since it fell off earlier in the act.) Another is when Pippin helps Catherine's young son, Theo (a sweetly touching Sebastian Hagelstein), with a sick duck. Lastly, in one of the final moments of the show, his character makes an ultimate decision much to the derision of the Players, and he lets out a guttural scream, a life-affirming cry, that caused the people in front of me to jump. It was a moment so real, so primal, that it made sense of the entire show in a single barbaric yawp (to quote Walt Whitman).
Kenan Roten's Charlemagne took some time to get used to, but he positively owned his big number, "War is a Science." As the grandmother, Berthe, the vibrant Bailee McQueen had the whole audience singing along to "No Time at All."
In the part of Pippin's stepmother, Fastrada, the outstanding Elise Belluccia was one of the best in the whole show. She is the whole package--actress, singer, dancer--and her "Spread a Little Sunshine" was incredible. As her dim son, Lewis, Caleb Brening was like a breath of fresh air. Every time he took the stage, you couldn't take your eyes off of him. He was always in the moment, and he exuded so much energy mixed with ridiculous joy in himself that it was hysterical. In one moment, he sees his reflection in a sword and kisses at it; this is a hilarious young actor to keep on your radar.
The stuff director Travaglino was able to pull out of these young performers in such a short time is amazing. Maybe "amazing" isn't the right word; maybe "miraculous" is closer to the truth. His choreography, along with Bellucia's, was quite imaginative, especially the various odes to PIPPIN's original muse, Bob Fosse. Musical director Barbara McBride kept the whole show driving along with the talented orchestra.
Because the cast only had five days of rehearsal time, problems naturally arise. The ensemble sang well, but a few more Players would add some vocal power that they sometimes lacked. Their opening song, "Magic to Do," while good, didn't rise to the goose bump level that the song is capable of. Some of the cast also must watch their diction; some of the lines were difficult to understand and lost their meaning because they were spoken so fast. Microphone issues got in the way of the show as well, including one during Catherine's key number, "Kind of Woman," that truly affected the song. The staging was messy at times and could use tightening, and the pace started off somewhat groggy but eventually grew stronger as the show continued.
PIPPIN is a loosey-goosey musical about youthful dynamism, the searching of soul in those crucial years, so it's wonderful when young people get a chance to perform it and connect with it. So my hat goes off to director Travaglino and his talented cast and crew. They have been able to do in five days what it takes most companies more than five weeks to accomplish!