BWW Review: Alonso High School Theatre Department's Magical, Extraordinary Production of Stephen Schwartz's PIPPIN
Before Alonso High School's production of PIPPIN even begins, the cast mingles with the audience. Dressed in black, over fifty of the teens fill the aisles, selling popcorn and constantly staying in character. At 6:55, a stage manager hurries onstage and announces, "Five till places!"
"Thank you, Five!" the characters yell back to her.
There's nothing on the stage but some scaffolding and stairs, but that's all that we need. After an announcement in both English and Spanish, the show begins at 7:00. The music starts--the opening to the iconic "Magic to Do"--and suddenly we're in the Land of Stephen Schwartz. Imagine white gloves bathed in blacklight, bodies writhing in red mist, and suddenly we are whisked away on one cool ride.
And then the Leading Player--an astonishing Makenna Kirsch--enters, donning what looks like a dark ringmaster outfit, and we know from her very first vocals that this is going to be one special show. The opening reflects the title of the song--it's magical. Every actor, the ensemble as well as the leads, are full of life, full of the love of performing, the beaming joy of telling this particular story. Their excitement can't be confined to the stage; there are so many cast members that quite a few of them wind up dancing in the aisles.
After the breathless opening number, the cast searches for Pippin, and they ultimately find him sitting smack dab in the center of the audience--he's one of us. This is presentational theatre at its best, truth masked by illusion, a magic show featuring numerous players. Pippin--an incredible Jacob Atkins--rushes to the stage, bursting with pumped-up vigor, a young man ready to conquer the world, and he brilliantly sings one of the great "I Want" songs of all time--"Corner of the Sky."
We follow Pippin's adventures, searching for a life less ordinary. Pippin's father, King Charlemagne (a charismatic Miguel Norena), looks like he's donning space age attire, like a Star Trek villain in a crown. He sits on a purple throne, cooled by two servants with feathered fans, and preaches his hawkish philosophy in "War is a Science." His other son, Louis (Noah Gargano), is like a wannabe Gaston, itching for war.
Pippin fights in battle ("Glory"), as dismembered hands, legs and heads strewn the stage like something out of The War of Winterfell. The cast of fifty charge down the aisles, screeching, almost leaping over the audience, fighting in slow motion, the strobe lights flickering. This is why a note in the program is extremely important: "For the safety of our actors and other audience members, please do not attempt to stand or move in the aisles." Good advice. Mass slaughter follows, ending with much death. And after all this, Pippin still remains unfulfilled.
The Leading Player then sings of "Simple Joys," complete with bouncing beach balls bopping throughout the audience and even a hula hoop. And one of the actresses is assigned to play Pippin's grandmother, Berthe (a spunky Audrey Castrias), who philosophizes on life in the catchy "No Time at All," a carpe diem ode, complete with audience singalong. (I just wish she didn't always have to sing the song upstage, away from the audience so we couldn't see her face, to Pippin.) Berthe even picks people from the audience and dances with them. The ensemble holds up poster boards with the life-affirming lyrics. I loved it that one of the cards was upside-down and just wish the young actress had kept it that way. She quickly saw her error, laughed, and then fixed her "mistake"; but I prefer a show where everything is upside-down and unexpected. That's the kind of show PIPPIN is--where even a mess-up is a thing of glory.
Pippin takes his grandmother's advice and frolics with every girl he can in the Fosse-inspired "With You." Some adults may be a little taken aback by the number, which insinuates carnal pleasures and even orgies. But it's not overt, showing the desires of the flesh through dance, and it ultimately gets its point across. Because Pippin is left unfulfilled again.
Pippin goes through various journeys, all leaving him empty inside. He even tries married life with Catherine (a fine Maria Lara) and her son, Theo (an adorable Diego Lara). But he just can't connect; he wants an extraordinary existence as he sings in the appropriately-titled "Extraordinary." When Pippin and Catherine start breaking away from the script, the troupe led by the Leading Player take away all illusion, all lights, all costumes, all set pieces. Everything is stripped away. And that's where the show got me-a life without illusion is a dangerous thing indeed, a void, unless you're with someone else to share it with. It's really what growing up is, and there's a sadness attached to it. Without illusion, what do we really have?
In the end, young Theo has the last word, as the cycle of life, the search for that Something with a capital "S," continues.
I have seen PIPPIN in several incarnations, including a National Broadway Tour. But I think it works best when a high school or college does it, because they can capture the show's energy and meaning more than anyone else, even professionals. Because these kids are actually living Pippin's life--a life ready for adventure, a search for purpose. And Alonso High School brings on the bacchanalia atmosphere times ten, which makes the post-party blues that much more devastating. (In PIPPIN, Act 1 is a party and a celebration of the magic of illusion; Act 2 turns into a hangover and the stripping away of all artifice.)
The cast is, to herald the title of Pippin's big Act 2 song, extraordinary. Makenna Kirsch is a force unlike many I've seen in theatre, and she's just a high school senior. She's an exhilarating essence, vibrant, commanding the stage like a warrior of sorts. Even when she's on the side of the stage, just watching the action, she still owns the show; you can't take your eyes off her, even when she's in shadow. Her onstage presence is that strong. I've seen three amazing high school performances in the past week--Thomas Rowell in A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, Taylor Tarver in Chicago, and now Makenna Kirsch. These three local high schoolers are like a Holy Trinity of Talent.
And you can add Jacob Atkins as Pippin to that select list (a Holy Quartet of Quality?). He captures the character's intricacies--his wide-eyed wonder, his confusion, and his disillusion. And he has a marvelous singing voice, homerun-hitting his "Corner of the Sky" and "Extraordinary."
Miguel Norena is powerful as the King, with great facial expressions and spot-on comic timing. Unfortunately, I couldn't always decipher the words of his big song due to a lack of enunciation. Noah Gargano is a spitfire as the aggressive Lewis, and Helena Tankosic is passable as Fastrada. And Maria Lara and young Diego Lara are wonderful, heartbreaking, in their roles.
But it's the ensemble that I found most thrilling: Isabella Adwell, Tala Amalfard, Tanash Arthur, Alex Atkins, Sophia Aweshah, Nichole Borges, Morgan Brady, Abby Bruno, Leonardo Bujones, Mia Costa, caroline Daniels, Kieli Edwards, Jesus Flores, Sabrina Gilli, Trey Hodges, Temia Innamorato, Gabriela Izaguirre, Samantha Kaufman, Alyssa Kobel, Emily Lane, Tatiana Lee, Janinan Lopez, Olivia Brocato, Hailey Marquez, Destina McDaniel, Avianys Mojica, Kristen Oxonian, Rebecca Reamer, Sara Rodriguez, Jonray Roman, Mya Rosenblatt, Marina Sanchez, MaKena Slater, Miranda Smallen, Gabriel Tavares, Alexa Tracy, Julissa Vasquez, Michael Vereb, Stephen Walker, Alhani White, Anysa Wooten and Natalie Wynne. This group was so enthusiastic, each one with a specific character, each one always in the moment. They were perky revelers, and then they rightly changed by the end. One of them even had tears streaming down her face as the show ended; the run was culminating and it was time to grow up. There is a sadness inherent in PIPPIN, and this young actress (I don't know her name) captured that as much as any of the leads. Seeing an ensemble member that committed was quite moving for a reviewer that is used to seeing a surfeit of B.O.S. (Bodies On Stage) in various ensembles in so many school shows. Extraordinary.
Alonso Theatre teacher, Lisa Vorreiter, has directed the production brilliantly, with impeccable pacing. It's such a celebration, messy at times but always full of life. Choreographer Andi Sperduti Garner captures the Fosse spirit of the original while still making it their own. Cody Basham and Mary Whitener do fine work with the lighting design, which really punctuates the excitement of what's happening on stage. Music director David Valentine has helped guide some amazing vocals, including outstanding harmonies from the ensemble. Jaime Giangrande-Holcom creates another dimension entirely with the costumes--they come across somewhere between a dark circus and Game of Thrones. And Scott Daniel's wigs work wonders.
I forgot how much fun PIPPIN is, but also how poignant it becomes. I saw the show on its final performance (April 27th) and then drove home, a smile on my face, listening to the Broadway cast album. I guess I, too, didn't want the party to end.