Magic from within

By Ande Jacobson

Everyone searches for meaning at some point in their lives. Some aspire to greatness, some aspire just to survive, and others are somewhere in between. Sunnyvale Community Players presents Pippin, the Roger O. Hirson and Stephen Schwartz musical that is very loosely based on the life story of Pippin the Hunchback, son of Charlemagne, as he searches for meaning in his life. The story is extremely disjoint. It has generous doses of farcical humor and cheap magic tricks (reminiscent of Godspell) mixed with threads of meaning if you look below the surface.

The Leading Player (Jery Rosas) introduces the audience to the main theme and the main characters as he and his artistic troupe begin the journey with the opening number, “Magic to Do”. They introduce Pippin (Sven Schutz) who seeks something extraordinary to spark his interest and to allow him to make his mark on the world. Pippin’s father, King Charles (Matthew Tipton), is a tyrant, bent on waging war and conquest and rules his subjects with an iron hand. Pippin’s stepmother Fastrada (Jacqueline Kehoe) and her dim-witted son Lewis (Chris Cruz) complicate things, but Pippin manages to work around them to join his father in the war against the Visigoths. After the war, Pippin visits his exiled grandmother, Berthe (Lisa Sramek), to ask for her help. Following her advice, he sets out to make a difference in the kingdom, which doesn’t go so well.

Act 2 takes a different tack. With the physical and political battles behind him, Pippin sets out to find love and stumbles upon Catherine (Cindy Powell) and her son Theo (Zachary Edwards), or rather he succumbs to the depths of despair, and Catherine finds him lying in the middle of the road. From there, Pippin’s life takes a radical turn.

Allie Bailey takes the driver’s seat as the director of this production, and her vision incorporates touches from the original and updated versions of the show. She injects a bit more edge into the production than is usually seen in the currently available version. She’s aided by the rest of her artistic staff including musical director Brian Allan Hobbs, vocal director Andrea Kline, and choreographer Jennifer Maggio.

The set is simple and consists of an elevated central platform with landings stage right and stage left. Directly below the main platform is a curtained entryway that’s used by members of the cast for entrances and to facilitate prop movement. Various decorative flags, topiaries, and banners adorn the set at times. Additionally, a projection screen hangs above the central platform displaying an opening message, words to the chorus of songs when the audience is asked to join in, and at a key moment, a map of the battlefield.

Rosas presents a very strong, charismatic, and mischievous puppet-master as the Leading Player. He’s a triple threat always adding panache to every scene he’s in. He’s got good chemistry with Schutz, Tipton, and Powell as well as with the ensemble members. In one stand-out segment during the war in the number “Glory”, he and dance captains Peter Schuurmans and Jennifer Vaillancourt perform the famed Fosse “Manson Trio” center stage amidst a very nicely staged battle in silhouette taking place around them.

Schutz does a delightful job in the title role. He’s very fluid and provides power behind his vocals, though he isn’t the dancer that Rosas is. Still, he and Rosas have some very nice moments, and he also has good chemistry with Tipton, Powell, and Edwards playing off of each of them very convincingly. Both Rosas’ and Schutz’s microphones were off for a large chunk of the number “On the Right Track” on opening night which allowed them to be drowned out by the orchestra, but they didn’t miss a lick or a step and still sold the number well. When the microphones cooperate, this should be an even more powerful opening to Act 2.

Tipton is primarily in Act 1, and he’s fun to watch. He’s adept at physical comedy and delivering matter-of-fact one-liners that flow naturally and land with a big impact.

This production embraces the alternate ending (also used in the 2013 Broadway revival of the show) which is creepier than the original and gives Edwards a moment to shine in the spotlight.

Overall, outside of a few minor pitch problems, the ensemble vocals are well done. The execution of the choreography gets a little out of sync on some of the full company numbers, but the cast has a lot of energy, and the movement fits the show. Several of the big numbers also keep the original Vaudevillian tone alive.

Hobbs’ stylistic changes serve to modernize the score to some degree. He removes some of the ‘70s pop feel and replaces it with a more contemporary driving rock tone in an experiment that doesn’t quite work. At times, this style overpowers some of the action and the vocalists in texture though not in volume when the mics are hot. The orchestra wasn’t quite ready for opening night and had a few small timing issues. They also had a few intonation problems that were most noticeable in the reeds on some quieter “Vaudevillian/Renaissance” sections. On the other hand, Alex Martin’s sound design nicely balances the orchestra and the cast so that lyrics are heard most of the time when the mics are on, and the overall volume doesn’t blow the audience out of the building. One noticeable vocal mic balance issue on opening night occurred during “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man” when the backup singers buried the soloist.

SCP is using new lights with this production, and Ed Hunter used them well in his lighting design. A particularly nice sequence occurs during “Glory”, when the lighting follows the lyrics in color and in texture instantaneously shifting the mood of the piece.

This production was very well received by the opening night audience. The theme is timeless, though despite the musical modernization, the show’s structure is still a bit dated. There is a fair amount of dark humor and plenty of adult language and situations, so it’s not completely acceptable for young children. Still, one message from the show is worth considering: despite numerous negative outside influences, the magic of life is found within one’s self.

What:  Pippin

Where:  Sunnyvale Community Theater, 550 E. Remington Dr., Sunnyvale, CA 94087

When:  Thursdays – Sundays through 6 October 2013.

See Sunnyvale Community Players – Pippin or call 408-733-6611 for more information or to order tickets.

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