BWW Review: Stephen Schwartz's PIPPIN Comes to Life in St. Petersburg College Theater Department's Crazily Creative, Exuberant Production
"Illusion, fantasy to study/Battles, barbarous and bloody/Join us, sit where everybody can see..." --from "Magic to Do," PIPPIN'S opening number"So, what's it all about?" That's a question a former theater student of mine asked me before St. Petersburg College Theater Department's summer production of PIPPIN. At first I thought he might be alluding to the meaning of life--wait, what is it all about?--hoping to be gifted with some sort of philosophical answer from your's truly. But soon I realized he was referring to the upcoming show, which he had never seen before.
I worried that my answer might come across as rather staid for such a fun musical: "Let's see...Pippin is the son of Charlemagne, and the story takes place around 780 A.D. It works on various levels, but mainly it's about this young man's search for some kind of meaning in his life. He looks everywhere, tries everything--he's a soldier, a lover, a ruler, and even a regular guy. But nothing brings him fulfillment, so he keeps searching. Trying to find something to make his life special."
My former student nodded his head. "Sounds a lot like my life," he said.
I realized that my former student, still a teen, was onto something; very few musicals capture what it's like to be a young person in search of selfhood, sort of a Medieval Holden Caulfield sifting through the phoniness, the illusions. And that's why I believe that PIPPIN (words and music by Stephen Schwartz; book by Roger O. Hirson) works best when performed by young people, teenagers, because they are experiencing first-hand young Pippin's struggle. And when a high school or a college perform it, it usually has so much verve, electricity, and dare I say magic, that it becomes infectious. It's a work that bleeds youth; I'm ten years younger than Berthe, Pippin's ribald grandmother, and it makes me, well into my fifth decade, feel young. I've seen several professional productions of PIPPIN, including the more recent National Tour that was more like a three-ring circus than a musical, and though entertaining with that great Schwartz score, the show ultimately left me cold and empty. But after seeing a high school production earlier this year and now the SPC version, it tears me up. It becomes a very emotional experience and makes me recapture those feelings from my own youth, the idealism and the disillusions, but most of all, the constant search for some kind of tangible meaning in this wacky world.
The SPC production of PIPPIN follows last year's triumphant Urinetown with yet another triumph. Students from ten local high schools and six colleges are represented here, and they are the top picks of the local talent pool. All of the sets, costumes, lights, sound, dances and songs were accomplished by these talented youths in a mere five weeks. And the result is, to say the least, stunning.
In case you didn't know the title of the show or its main character, six red banners, each with a letter of Pippin's name, drape under each window. And the young man who inhabits the lead role, Martin Powers, captures the boyish spirit, the idealism and frustration of a person in constant search for Experience with a capital E. Powers resembles a juvenile Leonardo DiCaprio, a nonthreatening teen idol--Peter Pan as played by a young Nick Carter of the Backstreet Boys with TNKOTB's Joey McIntyre's smile. He's immensely likable with so much talent oozing out of his pores. His big numbers, especially in the adolescent anthems "Corner of the Sky" and "Extraordinary," are, for lack of a better word, extraordinary. And he's so full of energy, a Puckish Tasmanian Devil zapping the stage to life, that his moments of realization, the unmasking of illusions at the end, wind up even more heartbreaking.
Usually there is one Leading Player, sort of the ringmaster/narrator for the cast; here, there are three, and they become a kind of Greek Chorus (a Greek Trio?). Ramiro Capano, Megan Levine and Chloe McIntosh are superb as these three devilish narrators. They hit out-of-this-world harmonies in "Magic to Do" and "On the Right Track." And their war song, "Glory," with their Fosse-esque dance moves amid the beheadings and mass casualties of battle, chills the bone. They are a friendly lot at first, and then, in Act 2, become more authoritative and bullying, until they've had enough and coldly stop all illusions to show Pippin how sad existence is without theatricality. Donning head to toe black, they're like three Emcee's from Cabaret, and each of them, unnerving presences throughout, brings so much to the roles. I've seen PIPPIN with several strong solo Leading Players, but having three of them adds a touch of swarming menace to the dazzle. They're sensational.
Eva Campuzano as Berthe brings down the house with an extra-rousing "No Time at All." It's the number that earned the largest ovation, and Ms. Campuzano sang the hell out of it. She's an exquisite talent, one who owned each minute she was onstage; the audience was so into the number that they clapped along with her musical ode to a robust life. I love how the ensemble held up the signs with the lyrics on them during it, and especially that one of the boards remained upside down; these are the types of masterly messy details that I adore. And Berthe's four suitors--young men she flirts with throughout the song--adorn t-shirts, each with a different word: "No," "Time," "At" and "All." The t-shirts and the upside-down card are the types of throw-everything-to-the-wind abandon that make this PIPPIN such a special show.
Justine Nelson is quite strong with pockets of vulnerability as Catherine, Pippin's love. Her "Love Song," sung with Powers, was such a joy. They laughed throughout it, so comfortable together, holding one another; there was no mistake they were in love. Their connection to each other made it work. Plus, like Powers, Nelson has a glorious voice.
Diego Vargas is an adorable Theo, and his "Prayer for a Duck" with Powers was sweetly rendered. Gabrielle Fehring, with a mass of flaming red hair, made for a fine Fastrada. And Cristian Torres stole the show as a particularly physical and hilarious Lewis. Whenever he enters the stage, you can't help but notice. Torres is a force of nature, and this blood-lusty Lewis was a comedic masterpiece who even gets a moment to moonwalk.
Bearded Quint Paxton makes the most out of King Charles, but sound issues crippled his big song, "War is a Science." The microphones went out just before the number, and we couldn't understand a word he sang in one of PIPPIN'S signature tunes. It's a shame, because he's quite stoic in the part. The sound issues were fixed later in the production, so I'm sure the song will get its rightful power during subsequent performances.
PIPPIN'S ensemble is an incredible assortment of local talent: Hope Lelekacs, Matthew Greer, Niki Gleeson, Rebekah Stevenson, Jonah Mastro, Greg Kirby, JD Stauffer, Jason Calzon, Autumn McNew, Mario Gonzalez, Francis Phimphivong, Mitchell Broadwater, Caroline Simpson and Sophie Tobin. Special mention must paid to two ensemble members--the beautiful Asya Basden and the lively Dean Yurecka. They both get various moments to shine, the shiniest when they portray a matador (Yurecka) fighting a bull (Basden) during a very memorable sex scene between Pippin and Catherine.
Director Scott Cooper has once again helmed an absolute winner. The show's pace was outstandingly tight, and his cast did him proud. The set, which he designed, is one of my favorites of the year--stairway, trapdoors, six window frames like shadow boxes where the cast keeps appearing and disappearing. The whole thing plays like a game of Stratego sprung to life. The stage crew, dressed like Death Eater Ninjas, bring on various set pieces, including a large sex box in the orgiastic "With You." And there's a moment of magic at the end of Act 1--a dead king levitates before our eyes--that had the audience talking at intermission. Added to all of this, Celeste N. Silsby Mannerud's evocative lighting works wonders.
This is one gorgeous show.
Katrina Stevenson's costumes underscore PIPPIN'S meaning. The three shady leading players, in shimmering black and slinking in the shadows of the stage, look like they're visitors from Planet Fosse. Pippin dons a gray hoodie, which seems more than right--gray, the color of indecisiveness. The rest of the performers looks like outcasts from one rather cool Renaissance Fair.
Latoya McCormick's music direction is second to none. The entire cast sounds superlative under her guidance, their harmonies magnificent. (There is no live orchestra, and though the music was wonderful, we do miss the thrill of actual musicians playing Schwartz's memorable score live.) Jessica Kerner Scruggs' choreography is crazily creative, energetic beyond belief, and suits the production well.
PIPPIN will present its magic for only three more performances--Saturday, June 29th at 2:00 PM and 7:30 PM and Sunday, June 30th at 2:00 PM at the SPC theater in Clearwater. Make sure to see it, especially when performed by young people who are currently experiencing Pippin's quandaries in their own lives. Interestingly, I will be seeing a professional version of the show in a few weeks, a show with adults in the leads, and it will be interesting to compare and contrast the two. But judging by the work of these amazingly talented high school and college students at the top of their game, this particular PIPPIN will be hard to beat.