Director Ray Jivoff brings a beloved classic to the stage of the Cabot Theatre as The Skylight presents a staging of the musical Pippin. Actors onstage play actors in a troupe telling the tale of the son of king Charlemagne lends style, intimacy and charm to a relatively large stage.
In the carefully rendered informality of it all, Jivoff and company make a big stage seem small by embracing its immensity. With Pippin, they've made a show that's just big enough to be small. It’s kind of a strange paradoxical dichotomy. The musical came out of an early ’70s where there was radical commercial experimentation even in the mainstream arts. The style is so very specific to the era, which always makes it kind of weird to see this sort of thing brought the stage again. So many people remember it from high school. It was originally developed as a show for students at Carnegie Mellon University. It’s perfect for that sort of production. Coming of age. Loss of innocence. Trying to find one’s place in the world. These themes are right at home in a university or high school setting. Brought onto a bigger stage, the show has an opportunity to play on some of the show’s more abstract, existentialist themes that deal with the nature of messy life-versus-tidy narrative.
Jivoff and company do a good job of playing on the more universal notions with a circus-like atmosphere cast against a bare stage. As Pippin, Lucas Pastrana is radiant enough to capture attention and hold it amidst all of the war and sex and love and responsibility that plague the character. Even with every spotlight cast on him, Pastrama seems like a nice guy. This is always a lot more difficult than anyone gives it credit for being. Pastama’s niceness goes a long way toward lending the overall production some warmth and bringing emotional immediacy to a bare stage that could otherwise feel cavernous.
True to the original inspiration of the show the stage is pretty empty. Scenic Designer Keith Pitts has been allowed to get strikingly clever with the minimalism. We get steamer trunks that are rather creatively used for various set pieces. One in particular falls out into a beautiful picture frame that is positively surreal. Steamer trunks aside, we get lots of scaffolding and folding chairs and things of that nature.
Kärin Simonson Kopischke’s costuming is fun as well. Knights wear the shining shoulder padding that appears to be pulled straight out of the NFL. Patterns and designs are ornate enough to give a sense of place on a largely empty stage without being so overpowering that they stifle the choreography. (And there really is one hell of a lot of that.) The Skylight puts together a sharply distinctive visual end of the world of Pippin. Really nice production design. Jason Fassl brings it all together with a lighting design that brings the warmth and emotional immediacy of the show even as far back as the balcony.
And then...there’s the music. Having been from a very specific end of a very specific generation, musicals of the late ’60s and early ’70s feel to me like the natural default position for a stage musical. Stephen Schwartz’s music for this show always felt very nondescript to my ear. The distinct style of Broadway music from this era feels like so much musical wallpaper to me. Jivoff and the Skylight have managed to make this feel fresh and emotionally engaging in spite of this, so I can only imagine how good this feels to someone who truly loves the era. Part of the success lies in overall presentation. Part of it also has to do with the fact that there are some really talented people even in around of the edges of the production.
I’m drawn to the edges of everything with people I’ve seen on smaller stages. It’s nice to see Stephanie Staszak in a big musical like this...particularly where there’s a lot of very precise choreography. She’s good for that. Becky Cofta is capable of delivering an irresistible and irresistibly comic sensuality to the stage even from a great distance. Here she is having a lot of fun with that and that fun transfers to the audience quite well.
Closer to the center of the stage we have Todd Denning as Charlemagne himself. Denning hauls in quite a bit of stage presence to develop a kind of gravity that the role requires. It turns out Denning isn’t only a very intense Shakespearian actor. The guy can sing. As always, he’s got a very sharp wit, too. The character of his scheming wife Fastrada feels a weak. To her great credit, Catherine Hausman reaches into the role and pries personality from the jaws of dullness. Natalia Ford lends humanity, compassion and patience to the role of Pippin’s love interest Catherine. In the center of it all is Crystal Drake as the Leading Player hosting the show. She’s got a classy precision about her that she has that mix of charisma and steely, cold showmanship that the role really thrives on. She carries it all with an emotional center. There’s a great depth about it. A great sense of power and intensity the rests at the heart of the show.
The Skylight’s production of Pippin runs through Oct. 7 at the Cabot Theatre in the Broadway Theatre Center. For ticket reservations and more, visit the Skylight Music Theatre online.