The North Carolina Theatre Conservatory launched the Master Summer Theatre Arts School's production of Stephen Scwartz's 1972 musical Pippin on July 6, featuring students from middle school to adult. Although technically a "youth" production, the show was charged, wildly funny, dramatic, and professionally presented, and it showed off the caliber of North Carolina's talent and educators in the arts.
This whirlwind of a show, beginning with a blank stage and evoking the magic of imagination and fantasy, started strong with Kalyse Connor as the Leading Player, the emcee and guide through Pippin's adventures. Connor is a dynamic, talented young woman who already dances, acts, and teaches professionally. Her stunning, polished performance carried the other artists through a world of wonder, magic, and intrigue, and it was astonishing to see how many exquisite numbers she led or starred in from upstage.
Evan Tylka, in the title role as the leading man who carries the audience's own experiences and desires, did a wonderful job as the earnest, ambitious Prince Pippin. His voice was incredibly strong for coming out of such a small body, and although the role put a strain on some of the middle pitches of a maturing voice, Tylka handled his scant voice cracks with dignity and professionalism. His masterful dance talent shone especially in "The Right Track," alongside the ever-present Leading Player.
Performances were complex, intricate, and brilliant, taking director/choreographer Tito Hernandez's delightful vision – true to Bob Fosse's original – and giving it flamboyant, stunning life. Ensemble numbers like "War Is a Science," "Morning Glow," and of course the grand "Finale" were dazzling, using unique balances of stillness and motion, humor and depth in the blocking. "No Time at All," in particular, had a little bit of everything: a beautiful chorus line, dancing pastoral figures in the background, and Pippin's sincerity. This was all centered around the off-color yet charming Berthe, played by Cady van Venrooy, who was a crowd favorite. Her song, while inherently hilarious, required a huge amount of talent to convincingly play up: the shifts between her Granny wisdom and her vivacious dancing and flirting were deft and always a surprise!
The humor in general was woven into the show so wonderfully, from more physical slapstick gags like Gracie de Loache owning Fastrada and her sexy, unexpected prowls across the stage; to fourth-wall breaking when the Leading Player addressed Pippin, the audience, or even the orchestra directly.
Madeline Zucker (Catherine) brought heavily layered humor and actual emotional honesty to a role that complicates Pippin's story in a deceptively simple way: through love. Zucker played the role with quiet assertiveness that shone through her often overshadowed character. Her voice did get overpowered a few times, perhaps because her microphone was set to accommodate her beautiful, operatic finale to "Kind of Woman," but the rest of her role was paler than she deserved.
The supporting music also fell flat in a couple of instances, with some cracked notes, rhythmic problems, and a few rough entrances. It was obvious that something had gone wrong when the director could be heard correcting, "And one, two, here!" from the back of the house. However, for the most part, the music only added to the humor, spectacle, and surprising emotional sincerity, with its delightful homage to 1970s pop and nods to Bob Fosse and Fred Astaire style dancers.
Other players, like Ben Eble (Charlemagne), Joshua Messmore (Lewis), and Spencer Fitzgerald (Theo), brought humor, conflict, and depth to a usually rollicking adventure, adding to the overall finesse of the show. Eble and Messmore provided the foil to the circus spectacle with their stylized portrayals of monarchical dandies. Fitzgerald was surprisingly talented, revealed through his few scenes and especially in the extended ending (conceived in 1998 and included by many productions since the 2013 Broadway revival) when the audience is graced with his angelic voice.
While there were a few glitches, like characters slipping a little or failing to catch items thrown to them, most of these were played off in delightfully funny fourth-wall breaks or quickly-embraced moments of physical comedy that worked wonderfully in the context of this over-the-top, circus show.
This production continues through July 8, although these students seem well and truly suited for a fuller professional musical theatre run. It is heartening to see the next generation of actors, dancers, and singers breathing new life into a delightfully wicked show like Pippin, one that embraces the Broadway tradition and still delivers such an incredible blend of satire and sincerity.
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