By DIEGO CAGARA
SCHENECTADY — The students of The School of the Performing Arts Broadway Camp delivered a memorable and explosive opening night as they performed “Pippin” at the nearly-packed Proctors in downtown Schenectady on Friday, August 4 at 7 p.m.
Having started working on the musical since around the 4th of July, students populated both the performance and production aspects of the show, giving it a very youthful tone which was warmly appreciated while proving that it all was placed in capable hands.
“Pippin” is a Tony-Award winning musical that first opened on Broadway back in 1972, with the legendary Stephen Schwartz helming the music and lyrics. Its titular character struggles to find meaning in his life even though he is a potential heir to a kingdom’s throne, which is currently occupied by his father, King Charles (or Charlemagne). The musical flings historical accuracy out the window so that it does not get bogged down by actual politics and history.
The musical’s storyline feels familiar as there have been many main characters in popular media who seek a purpose in life or searches for something greater beyond their reality.
Actor Justin Jasiewicz mostly did an impeccable job in capturing Pippin’s innocence and naïveté, further projected by his enthusiastic disposition. For a few brief moments throughout, his voice was not strong enough to deliver the lyrics or he accidentally flubbed his lines; perhaps the scenes felt rushed or he was actively moving across the stage which affected his speech. But ironically, it added to his character’s unassuming and petite nature, possibly earning even more empathy from the audience as the character struggled to find self-fulfillment.
His journey, however, seemed never-ending as he encountered wealth, women, romance and the potential to be in a family of his own—all of which he turned down eventually as he perpetually acted like nothing was enough. This led to the overarching joke that he can’t find a “happy ending,” causing most of the other characters to abandon him onstage in the end, stripping him of his wardrobe, music and overall production. This breaking-the-fourth-wall phenomenon made for great laughs.
The supporting cast mostly was successful and some shout-outs include Connor Eastman as Pippin’s father, Charlemagne; Hannah Destefano as Pippin’s lover, Catherine; Caitlyn Efner as her daughter, Thea; Tyler Barhydt as Pippin’s brother; and Monica Rathbone played Pippin’s exiled grandmother, Berthe.
Perhaps the most illuminating of the cast were the unnamed ones—the three Leading Players, played by Trinity-Robin Santos, Maria Andreoli and Louis Blair. This was a clear departure from the original departure which only had one Leading Player but this risk paid off as the three young actors animatedly brought the characters to life.
They each poured in a genius level of theatrics, over-the-top drama and sass, often dropping one-liners and entertaining the crowd with their swagger. They came across like a Greek chorus who were present onstage in many scenes and offered apt commentary. They also reminded some of Chiffon, Crystal and Ronette (another Greek chorus-like group) in the “Little Shop of Horrors” musical, the Dynamites from “Hairspray” and the Muses in Disney’s “Hercules” (1997). The Leading Players’ actors’ chemistry was clearly embraced by the audience as they received a vividly uproarious applause at the musical’s end.
For the uninitiated, the musical was surprisingly easy to follow with its simply overarching theme of finding purpose and its incredibly catchy show tunes. The musical succeeded in flexing its dark humor muscles by desensitizing viewers to the violence and sexual content onstage. Depictions of stabbings, decapitating of people’s heads, throats being slit as well as flying bloody limbs during a battle scene were watered down into joking matter. A memorable moment was when the villagers were casually collecting the corpses and loose limbs off the stage with a wagon in the background while the core characters were interacting in the foreground.
Besides the Leading Players, the musical’s juvenile and sassy nature was wholly emphasized when an actual board containing some lyrics descended over the stage and the audience was encouraged to sing along. A literal spotlight bounced off each lyric, like a makeshift karaoke session, and it further lightened the overall musical’s feel.
The production was commendable as well as the choreography. An example was when a lone spotlight shone down on Pippin, who innocently thought that having sexual relationships with women was the way to make him happy. He became surrounded by several females who each enticed, danced around and seduced him, almost hinting at an orgy, but the dark setting served a sense of sin which made both the viewer and Pippin realize that this was all wrong.
The opening night of “Pippin” at Proctors was certainly compelling.
Unlike its main character, the musical and the students who put it together did find a purpose—to entertain its audience with a palate of adult jokes and a cheesy-yet-excusable life lesson. It cautiously treads between being a family-friendly affair and a slight-too-adult plot but it nonetheless delivered. It would only have two more performances, the next day on Saturday, August 5 at 2 and 7 p.m.