Like the original Roger O. Hirson book, Glendale’s Spotlight Youth Theatre’s new, energetic production for the Broadway musical Pippin is a mixed bag of ups and down, highs and lows, successes and failures. The original source material was always an uneven combination of comical, anecdotal sketches; its rhythm soared in the first half, then slowed in the second, only to bounce back again towards the end. Even Stephen Schwartz’s score, his second after Godspell, ranged from outstanding, to middling, to mediocre. But, like the show itself, what’s great about Spotlight’s production far outweighs any reservations you may experience during its lulls.
Those familiar with the show since its 1972 opening should know of its various alterations. Having now seen close to a dozen productions, it’s safe to say that none have looked or sounded the same since its premiere in the seventies. If you’re curious and can find a copy of the DVD, the 1981 television production with Ben Vereen is pretty much how it was originally conceived, despite several cuts.
The recent and hugely successful 2013 revival has the mysterious performance troupe appear under a traveling circus tent where its performers reflect more a Cirque Du Soleil look rather than the intentionally inconsistent time period costumes of the original. With a touch of welcome nostalgia, Spotlight’s production harkens back to the seventies, opening with those luminous, white gloved hands, glowing while floating in the smoky dark as the opening chords of Magic To Do fade up.
It’s a great beginning, and so is the whole of Schwartz’s magical opening number. Once Trey DeGroodt’s androgynous Leading Player steps out of the shadows and invites the audience to “Join us,” the stage practically bursts into color and movement, powered by the non-stop energy and voices of a youthful ensemble that truly delivers. Choreographer Lynzee 4man has adapted those famous and influential Bob Fosse moves to work within the confines of the Spotlight stage, and she’s brought the best out of the cast to make those moves succeed. With a great vocal from Trey, the harmonies of the cast, all under the guidance of music director Mark 4man, and the overall effectiveness of the dance, Spotlight’s version of Magic To Do is such a knock-your-socks-off beginning that as soon as it ends you want to rewind and experience it again.
Pippin’s individual adventures have always been a hit or miss with audiences, which might explain the mixed reviews of the original and why the darker elements of the Bob Fosse directed version are now considerably lightened. The first half moves at lightening speed from one situation to another as Pippin (Devon Policci) looks for an extraordinary life full of purpose, punctuated by a stream of great pop/rock songs, all possessing catchy hooks with a theatrical flair. Pippin is the king’s son, but he’s looking for more than just a kingdom to command; he wants reason to his being and to discover his corner of the sky.
But even though the events revolve around the young lad’s journey, the overriding figure in the first half is not so much Pippin as it is the MC. Trey DeGroodt’s Leading Playing is such a dominant force with his spot-on vocals and his slinky, fluid, Fosse inspired moves, he can’t help but take control of the stage when he’s there. But his is a different Leading Player, and it’s all to do with appearance. With thick black eyelining, long Liza Minnelli lashes, and a heavy dose of ruby red lipstick, he’s less Ben Vereen and more a gender-crossing Patina Miller mixed with the MC from Cabaret, dressed in a Sgt. Pepper’s jacket and Miller’s feminine thigh-high, high-heeled boots, plus corset. Trey is credited as both a player and the hair & make-up designer. He’s done a great job with the looks of the cast, but while he’s clearly taken time to carefully design the Leading Player, there’s an overreach with his own appearance that doesn’t quite work.
There’s a difference to Pippin, also, but that has nothing to do with make-up. As played by Devon Policci, Pippin is less a wide-eyed innocent and more an aggressive enthusiast. There was never supposed to be a sense of danger with the king’s eldest boy, but Devon’s scrappy Pippin has the look of someone who might pop you at any given moment. During the climactic scene when it appears as though the Leading Player is going to strip Pippin of everything he has, Devon, with his threatening side glance and a tight-lipped look of annoyance not fully under control, appears as though he might actually headbutt the MC.
There’s good support from Isaiah Salazar as a suitably forceful King Charles, and from Sarah Pansing as Pippin’s mother, Fastrada. Her Spread A Little Sunshine is a comical musical highlight, as is Savoy Grace’s elderly Berthe with the catchy sing-a-long No Time At All.
The show’s second half has an altogether different beat, both musically and dramatically. Instead of hopping from one misadventure to another, Pippin finds himself on the estate of widowed farm-owner Catherine (Alyssa Armstrong) and stays there. Most of the show remains on that estate, and without the right casting of the widow to hold things together, as witnessed on several previous professional and community theatre productions, the whole thing can fall apart.
Showing great potential as a supporting player in Spotlight’s recent Legally Blonde, Alyssa has landed the meatier role as Catherine, and she’s a delight. As with Valley Youth Theatre, the fun of watching new talent on the Spotlight stage is focusing on someone who, with the right direction and professional training, looks as though they might have a future on the stage beyond their high-school years of youth theatre productions. With her ebullience and an overall spirit of playful naturalness that she injects into Catherine, easily making the part her own, Alyssa is this Pippin’s unexpected standout, and clearly the saving grace of the show’s second half. While her songs are the less exciting numbers from the Stephen Schwartz score, she still manages to hold an audience’s attention, and that’s testament to an emerging talent.
The production’s colors, what looks like the rusty reds and blue triangles of director Bobby Sample’s nondescript set, manifests the feel of how Pippin appeared when it initially opened in ‘72. With a simple drop of a central staircase, the stage becomes the setting for the king’s court or the stairway to a cage of crackling flame. When raised it becomes the open area of a battlefield, and when a bed is pushed out from under the upright platform it’s suddenly Catherine’s bedroom. Light images of windows projected either side of the set instantly create the look of a chapel or a large house. The design, created by the director, is efficient and highly effective.
Pippin continues at Spotlight Youth Theare in Glendale until November 5
Pictures courtesy of Joanne Wastchak