Preview: “Pippin, The Musical”

AUTUMN WARD / COURTESY

Broadway classic comes to Davis with modern twist

The Broadway classic “Pippin, the Musical” is coming to UC Davis starting Feb. 22 through the Department of Theater and Dance, telling the famous story of a man in search of his identity. But it’s coming with a twist.

“Pippin usually takes places in the Holy Roman Empire, but this one takes place today,” said director and choreographer Mindy Cooper.

Cooper had the idea to adapt the play after using “Pippin, The Musical” as an example in a class. The original production, directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse in 1972, was later revived in Broadway with a circus setting. Cooper based the show off this revival, but has added a political twist.

“I realized that one of the main characters is a tyrannical leader, power-hungry, doesn’t care about people and is much more into wealth and power than humanity — rings a bell,” Cooper said. “I realized I wanted to do Pippin but to explore the political environment we are in today. I have realized within the last year that our politics is the best theater we have going right now.”

However, to accomplish her own change in setting, Cooper only changed one line in the script to incorporate a modern-day headline. The characters from the original script speak for themselves.

“We’re not impersonating Trump,” said Charlie Lavaroni, a second-year English and theater double major who plays Pippin. “We have someone who is playing Charlemagne who is like the Trump figure. It’s not impersonations, but we are pulling from this cultural iconography and symbols and mixing that into the story.”

Cook also made sure to add another more modern and progressive directorial decision.

“I have found out how heteronormative the play is,” Cook said. “I know how forward-thinking UC Davis is, and it was created at a time where men put women on pedestals, so I have played that down a lot and tried to make it a little more equal, especially the love story. What’s written I can’t change, but I can change how they are equals in the relationship.”

Even with the changes to the original setting of the production, the main themes have remained the same.

“Pippin is basically, to put it simply, the story of a young man’s journey into adulthood and finding himself,” Lavaroni said. “It’s an anecdotal tale, so he goes along different paths along the way and learns different lessons and by the end he learns that it’s okay to settle, it’s okay to find happiness in a contained space. It’s about the dangers of this grandiose exceptionality that we all face.”

These themes become especially applicable within the college setting.

“One of my close friends is going through that same crisis of what do ‘I do with my life,’ and we all manifest this in different ways or even suppress it,” Lavaroni said. “It’s really interesting as an actor to be going along with the journey of this character, kinda learning from him and his lessons.”

The fact that it’s a musical production assists in conveying such concepts through its design — there is significance in the emotional juxtaposition, the heaviness of emotion under the flair of song and dance. Cook explained it this way: Musicals sing what you can’t speak.

“Bob Fosse musicals always have a spin of darkness in them,” Lavaroni said. “The song and dance is often used as tools for acknowledging the superficiality of the political world. It’s definitely ironic. I think musicals are in their inherent state frivolous, but there is this heightened reality that brings truth to musical theater.”

Such a play has its inherent challenges within the script that the actors and director need to be aware of.

“It’s a big cast, and there is only one of me,” Cook said. “I am both the director and choreographer, and I’ve done this a lot before, but I usually have more time. There is never enough time. We rehearse from 6 to 10 p.m., but I get them at the worst time since they all have so much going on, so you have to cheerlead a little.”

In addition, the script calls for a young boy to play Theo, Catherine’s son. While this could have been viewed as a dilemma in a college setting, the role has been filled by Django Nachmanoff, a 10-year-old boy from Davis.

“I get to go into a world that’s not my own and I get to find myself in someone else,” Nachmanoff said. “I love getting parts and finding out what’s realistic from this part to myself.”

According to Lavaroni and Cook, Nachmanoff has been an asset to the production.

“We put a casting notice out into the community […] and the beauty about Django is that I just knew,” Cook said. “He is wicked smart and loves the theater. I do this table work at the beginning of a process where we talk about the piece and take it apart and ask a lot of questions. I ask them to be smart actors, to bring questions and comments. And every day the first hand that was up was Django’s, and he always had something smart to say and interesting questions.”

Django, too, seems to be learning from the production as much as it benefits from him.

“I’m a man of one emotion,” Nachmanoff said. “When I feel an emotion it is usually a superlative emotion; I’m feeling either really happy or really sad. In this character, he is a mix of emotions in some scenes so I have to practice mixing my emotions into the different parts of my body and facial expressions and body language. I’m going to take away that there is nothing to be afraid of in theater. Face your fears and follow what you really want and delete the obstacles.”

“Pippin, The Musical” will be playing in Wright Hall Main Theater Feb. 22 to 24 and March 1 to 3 at 7 p.m. and on Feb. 24 and March 3 at 2 p.m. Tickets can be purchased on the Davis Department of Theater and Dance website.

 

Written by: Caroline Rutten — arts@theaggie.org