“We’ve got magic to do … Just for you. We’ve got miracle plays to play. We’ve got parts to perform … Hearts to warm. Kings and things to take by storm. As we go along our way,” sang the company and leads of Salamanca’s Ray Evans Seneca Theater production of “Pippin,” during Saturday’s performance.
Originally produced on Broadway in 1972, it was staged by Stuart Ostrow, and directed by Bob Fosse. The book was by Roger O. Hirson with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Diane Paulus revived the production in 2013.
Leading Player (Talia Van Druff) the “narrator” of the acrobatic troupe of performers became more confident and solid in stage / vocal presence as the show progressed speaking directly to the audience at times. The talented and flexible ensemble cast told the story of Pippin (Chris Borland) who longs to find passion and adventure. Borland’s vocals were clean, natural and pure where his range and falsetto was evident in his renditions of “Corner of the Sky,” “Morning Glow” and “Extraordinary” Noteworthy was the acoustic duet “Love Song,” where he sang with tender and realistic emotion.
This production used a mutli-level universal set designed by Todd Wagner, artistic director, that consisted of a central pass through as the palace window or the tree of life. Stage right and left of center were boxed areas used for passage. Levels were skirted with raw palates that served as vents for stage fog. A trio of posters suspended mid-stage right and left along with a “lyra” — suspended aerial trapeze ring were the only set connections to the circus theme. Upstage the cyc was dressed with natural timbers where the audience may have searched for the circus connection there as well, as the suspected set would be scaffolding to hold circus apparatus.
The players wore costume pieces from several different time periods. The female players wore variations of muted pink corseted boosteeyays with short smocked pantaloons and the male players wore black troupe pants, suspenders and patterned hose which projected a sexual connotation toward the cabaret or burlesque. This muted coloration also did not scream circus.
Choreography by Rudi J. Andalora included tumbling, aerial silks and trapeze rings, ribbon hoop dances and juggling. The dance sequences were effective for the dance mean of the company. Several group and mirrored poses with a head turn or lateral stretch were even more effective than the dance sequences. There was a dance sequence involving folded chairs that was noteworthy. The physicality of this production should be commended as the players trained extensively to portray acrobatics, aerialists, flame artists and circus performers. Additional commendation should go to Josh Kurzban, Illusion and Magic Consultant for some incredible telepathy.
This circus-inspired production continues as Pippin tries to prove his loyalty to his distracted father, King Charles (Jake Riggs). Riggs character was consistent and he was able to vocally endure the triple time refrain in “War is a Science.” His character King Charles was killed in war by Pippin, who realizes his mistake requesting the Leading Player to restore his father’s life.
Berthe (Sharon Rula Backos) Pippins Paternal Grandmother tells Pippin not to be so serious and to live a little in her lively performance of “No Time At All,” where she cued audience participation and pointed out she would be singing the bridge. Her characterization was fun and enduring and her movement was perfect and skillfully youthful. Her Sprechstimme (cross between speaking and singing) was effective but left the audience hungry for the lyrical vocal bridge. Backos even demonstrated her skill on the aerial trapeze ring.
Madison Granger was very effective in her role of Fastrada, Pippin’s mother singing the audience pleaser “Spread A Little Sunshine,” where she combined that speak-song with actual lyrical singing. She danced well with confident extensions and completed several split second costume changes. The story line continues with the monarchy conflict between Pippin and his brother Lewis (Skyler Schapp) who appeared committed to excel in vocals and choreography. He appeared very natural and proficient on the aerial lyra.
Pippin falls in love with a widowed farm-owner Catherine (Vanessa Kavanagh) who adds some comedy relief not being able to make her timely entrance as she fumbles through to her prime entrance singing “For I’m just a plain, everyday commonplace, come-what-may, average, ordinary wonderful girl!” This song “Kind of Woman,” was sung to lure Pippin into her passion, which includes a young daughter that further tugs at Pippin. Kavanagh’s bright and colorful character vocals were to be commended especially in the acoustic duet “Love Song,” with Pippin.
Pippin struggles to decide whether he should settle down to a peaceful life with Catherine and her daughter Thea (Alayna Rivas) who is comforted by Pippin at the death of her pet duck. As time goes by Pippin feels that he must leave the farm searching for his purpose. The acrobatic troupe and the Leading Player set Pippin up for his biggest act which included jumping into a burning ring of fire (actually a rather small and unrealistic 50-gallon drum) to find the magic of his internal search.
At the last moment Pippins folds in further inventory that results in the perceived disassemble of costume and set, the stage lights dimmed, the orchestra cased, leaving Pippin, Catherine and Thea standing in the ghost-light. Pippin realizes he has given up his extraordinary purpose for the simplest and most ordinary life of all, and he is a happy man. The threesome start off stage and Thea returns to ponder what a life of the circus would be like and to dream about her new life to come. All of a sudden this young woman of childhood impeccably sings in A cappella “Rivers belong where they can ramble…” The Leading Player, the troupe returns to the stage with “Magic To Do,” and we see Thea as Pippins replacement.
“Pippin” is a huge undertaking for a remote community theater with a smaller production space and limited resources. The investment in lighting sources added excitement with moving and rotating gobos, LED air cannons, string lights, stipped proscenium lights and flamed foot lights. Stage management was by Janette McClure assisted by Madison McCelland. Special effects were by Mikel Wintermatel.
Music Direction was by Luke YerpeStock and pit conduction by Ruth Fuller. There was several noteworthy music intervals noting cook tribal percussion and the vocal harmony experienced at the end of Act One. Mid-house there was an occasional sound imbalance where the pit exceeded the vocals. In the finale, the company appeared to be shouting over the pit. Sound design by Dale Wymer.
The Players not previously mentioned include: Denzil Beatty, Riley Brown, Nellie Davis, Nick Delity, Angela Emley, Stephanie Farrell, Shazz Gillette, Victoria Kearns, Brain Lewis, Austin Schapp, Caroline Todd, Aline Wintermantel, and Anna Yaworsky.
The Ray Evans Seneca Theater is located in the city of Salamanca, New York at the corner of Broad Street and Main Streets. Tickets are $15 secured online at www.showclix.com or by contacting the box office at 945-1003.
The show repeats Friday, Feb. 23 and Saturday, Feb. 24, both at 7 p.m. The show closes with a matinee Sunday, Feb. 25 at 2 pm. This theater is a proud member of the Cattaraugus County Living Arts Association (CCLAA).