It’s been nearly two years since there’s been a production on Mac Haydn’s stage and the opening moment of “Pippin” has their title character played by Kylan Ross enter the darkened theatre with a flashlight and survey the surroundings and the audience. One of the first things everyone will notice is Mac Haydn Theatre is no longer in the round. A small section of seats was removed so there is no longer a small island stage surrounded by patrons but it is now a large thrust stage. Tonight, there’s a curtain on the floor upstage which will be raised as a beautiful, colorful, patchwork background for the evening. There will still be performances inches away and multiple entrances through the audience but they will no longer be confined to the center of the room.
“Pippin” is the extremely popular 1972 Stephen Schwartz musical about the eldest son of King Charlemagne who is on a quest for true happiness and personal fulfillment and applies himself in the arenas of war, sex, politics, creativity and prayer before finding joy in the extraordinary ordinariness of everyday life.
The silky and commanding Leading Player (a captivating Amber Mawande-Spytek) and her assistant Player with Fire (razor-sharp David Aaron) usher in the company with the inviting opening number “Magic to Do.” The ensemble of players throughout the show offers exciting, engaged and committed performances, never flagging in their energy or imagination always abetted by fun choreography by Elizabeth McGuire.
The 2013 Broadway revival which won four Tony Awards and introduced a circus atmosphere to the telling of “Pippin” may have influenced the presentation of this production but there are just as many steampunk and comic-con elements to the design and presentation. What does this do? The troupe of players is very diverse, made up of markings or color and freely dressing with either gender expression. There are Victorian and modern elements to the terrific costume design by Angela Carstensen, scenic design by Emma Cummings and prop design by Emily Spateholts. It places the telling in an open, imaginative theater, capable of expression in any time period or style. There are Day-Glo painted rope harnesses the actors wear for the war scenes which are glow in the dark and firmly place the production in a DIY, crafts culture.
Kylan Ross takes center stage for the next number with the anthem “Corner of the Sky.” Ross has a terrifically appealing voice and you can feel him thinking through this song building its strength not just on the power of his vocals but on his empathic identification. As he crossed downstage on the first couple of choruses singing “Rivers belong where they can ramble,” I could sense his strong, personal connection to this song. It’s a great performance and we’re spoiled knowing we’ll be watching him all evening.
The rest of his Family offers solid support. His father King Charlemagne played by Mikel Hunter has a vivid presence with his white beard but could take more joy in his tyranny. Fastrada, Pippin’s step-mother played by Ashley DeLane Burger and her son Lewis played by Andrew Burton Kelley are very attractive performers and they are always worth watching in the court scenes. They both connect personally with the audience and Burger even worked in a fun acknowledgment of a particularly vocal group of the audience. Best of all is his grandmother, Berthe, taken on by Liz Gurland who commandeers the stage, her song and the audience effortlessly when she sings the roof raiser “No Time at All.” Well done.
Finally, Pippin finds the love of his life, the widow Catherine (charming Maya Cuevas) who has an adorable daughter Thea sweetly played by Clementine Kline in Act II and the joys and hardships of domestic, bucolic, everyday life. The gentleness and inevitable bond of their duet “Love Song,” is as comforting and revivifying as breathing freely in a theatre again, even behind a mask.
The band under the direction of David Maglione is larger, fuller and more alive than I have remembered in this space. It’s a great performance of Schwartz’s enduring mix of pop and show tunes.
Artistic Director John Saunders has led Mac Haydn Theatre through the darkness of the past two years and like the title character of his production of “Pippin” shone a light and found the extraordinary in the ordinary. “Pippin” has a brilliant leading performance, solid supporting cast and an exciting ensemble that nails every hit in the show and gives you plenty to be grateful for. First and foremost, it’s good to be back watching a show at The Mac again.