ASST. NEWS EDITOR
Pippin is Whittier College’s most recent musical, adding to the Theatre department’s history of acclaimed productions. The College’s Theatre department was nominated as one of the top 10 most underrated college theatre programs in the United States in 2017 by OnStageBlog, and it’s not hard to see why. From the Shannon Center’s intimate size, romantic lighting, and glimmering-yet-subtle architectural features, as soon as the show begins, you’re transported into another world. Pippin makes this journey into the life of the son of King Charlemagne even easier, as the Leading Player welcomes the audience with a showgirl-esque song in her shining black leotard and a dashing smile.
Throughout the play, Leading Player, played by fourth-year Sabrina Astengo, gives stage directions to their self-aware cast, often breaking the fourth wall with jokes to the audience — my favorite time was when a character who had previously been hanged is hanged again later in the play, to which they responded: “Not again!” This element moves the plot along, which is comprised of a young prince’s journey trying to find an identity. He is faced with the challenges of his father’s corrupt kingdom — first inspiring change by fighting in Charlemagne’s holy war, leading a revolution against his father’s totalitarian rule, engaging in casual sexual relationships, and, finally, by becoming a responsible masculine presence in the home of the widow Catherine with her son Theo and Theo’s adorable pet duck.
Admittedly, the plot of Pippin wasn’t my cup of tea. This wasn’t the fault of the College’s theatre department — Pippin was written in 1972 by Roger O. Hirson, to whom I will address the only complaint I had: the plot seemed more like an excuse for dramatic music numbers than to tell a well-tied-together story — from the “it was all a dream” trope to failure to deliver the promised fiery ending in favor of the hyperrealistic ‘actor’ personas ‘abandoning’ the script.
Still, I have to agree with how third-year Samantha Paladini (who played Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother) described the plot as relatable: “Pippin is all about the journey. The story is so simple, and yet I think most college students can empathize with Pippin’s longing to find meaning in life. The show is a good reminder that the extraordinary can be found in the littlest of things.” To this note, second-year Ariel Horton, who played Catherine, felt audiences would appreciate the raw emotion of the finale, “when Pippin, Theo, and my character, Catherine, are standing together . . . their costumes and makeup removed, just watching [the] curtain as it closes . . . the illusion, grandeur, and ‘magic’ dissolves . . . the most valuable things in life are the real, simple things, and the best things happen when we remove our masks.”
The cast gave their all in performing the parts of the thirty-fourth longest-running Broadway show. The acting was incredible; main characters like Leading Player, Pippin, Catherine, and Charlemagne were dramatic and convincing, as expected, but even side characters delivered their lines with authenticity. Surprisingly, a few newcomers joined the largely-familiar cast, according to fourth-year Jacob Shore, who played none other than Pippin himself. The cast acts as “a family, really. When one person is down, there is someone there to pick them up. This cast, I think, out of all the ones I’ve been in, really clicked the most,” said Shore. Horton agreed, calling the cast “one of the kindest and most inclusive casts I have ever worked with.”
Although I previously expressed my personal problems with the play itself, attention has to be paid to the exquisite musical numbers. The singers were fantastic; Leading Player, Pippin, Catherine, and Berthe’s voices, in particular, were clear, confident, and controlled. All singing parts were well-received. At some points, as the instruments raised an octave, I wondered, “oh crap, are they gonna hit that note?” and smiled when they delivered them beautifully. Many songs raised this question, as the dramatic style of the musical incorporated many variances of high and low notes. Shore described his role as his “most challenging vocally, in terms of actual singing parts.” Horton admitted that she “didn’t enter the rehearsal process terribly confident about [her] voice,” yet both she and Shore performed exceptionally well. “[It’s] thanks to the encouragement, support, and help I got from my cast, our director Jennifer Holmes, and our student vocal director Sydney Summers,” said Horton. To read more about fourth year vocal director Sydney Summers, read our Senior Spotlight on TheQuakerCampus.org.
In addition to the music, Pippin’s costume design was a focal point of admiration. The side characters all had unique, colorful clothing with dedication to detail, which really called attention to Pippin’s central theme of finding individuality. The dancing by side characters was well-rehearsed and diverse, drawing from both lyrical and jazz styles. It was the “most difficult part of the production,” according to Horton, though her fluid dance solo in “With You” as an ensemble-member didn’t let this on. My favorite dance was a metaphor for Pippin’s sex life, presented comically in its performance difficulties, as a pair of dancers perform together but one purposefully falls — I’ll leave readers to interpret its symbolism — then restarts the dance, which continues gracefully, ending with a dancer posed upside down, held upright by the other dancer, her legs in a V-formation.
Overall, such dedicated, attention-grabbing performances were what made Pippin an enjoyable experience, despite my problems with its plot. Go to the next musical to support the evident hard work of the cast because, as Shore put it, “We made that top 10 list for a reason.”