Spring is nearly upon us, and for the New Paltz High School Drama Club, that can only mean one thing: There’s “Magic to Do” — in the form of an exuberant stage musical, with a big cast brimming with youthful talent and plenty of support behind the scenes. This year’s offering is the Tony Award-winning 1972 musical Pippin, with book by Roger O. Hirson and music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Wicked). There will be four performances, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, March 22 to 24, in the high school auditorium.
The story is based, very loosely, on the life of Pepin the Hunchback, first son of Charlemagne, who revolted against his father after being disinherited. Not much remains of its eighth-century origins, except for a narrative structure that might have been inspired by medieval allegories like Everyman and The Pilgrim’s Progress: Caleb Sheedy, who portrays the Leading Player, notes that the character Pippin “goes through the Seven Deadly Sins” in his quest of self-discovery. But Pippin the musical places the young prince in the context of a traveling circus performing a play-within-a-play, with the action frequently switching back and forth between meta-levels and characters breaking through the fourth wall to address the audience directly.
Sheedy says that he originally wanted to try out for the title role, but director Nancy Owen and assistant director Karyn Morehouse had him pegged for the part of the sinister, manipulative Leading Player: the role that won Ben Vereen a Tony in the original Broadway production. It turned out to be a great fit for the extroverted senior, who plans to pursue a college degree in musical theater. “I don’t have to act half the time,” he admits. “I am a little controlling; I like it when things go right. The goal of my character is to get the character playing Pippin to kill himself for the show and the greater good.”
Gil Sweeney — another senior with a future in theater, who has already been accepted at the Royal Conservatory of Scotland — showed off his fine tenor voice portraying Pippin in a preview performance of several numbers from the show last Saturday at the Kingston Barnes & Noble store. In his signature song “Extraordinary,” the prince declares his unwillingness to settle for anything less than a perfect life. “Everyone wants to be extraordinary,” says senior Carmen Chu, who plays Fastrada, Pippin’s ambitious stepmother. “But he falls into this accidental happiness.”
On one level, the play’s message is fairly conventional: Find yourself in life’s simpler joys. But its ending is ambiguous, and in the words of senior Philip Jones, who plays Charlemagne, “really creepy — really weird…. They leave so much out. It leaves audiences wondering what’s going on.” “This is my second time in the show, and I still don’t understand it,” says senior Megan Geher, who plays Pippin’s grandmother Berthe. “There’s no right way to do Pippin,” adds Sheedy.
One of the reasons why Owen chose Pippin for this year’s spring musical is the fact that the show offers about equal numbers of roles for male and female performers, and the Drama Club has had an uncharacteristically high number of boys participating for the past several years. That’s about to change, though, Morehouse notes, as 23 of the club’s current members are about to graduate. “We’re very lucky that we have some really talented underclassmen coming up,” she says, while praising the “great cast” of the current show.
NPHS choral director Nicole Foti did the music direction for Pippin, and Kate Weston the choreography for the student production, which Morehouse says was designed to “emulate as much of Bob Fosse as possible.”
Performances of Pippin will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, March 22, 23 and 24, with tickets costing $12 general admission and $10 for students and seniors. A 2 p.m. matinée on Saturday will offer a special discounted admission price of $8 for all. Tickets can be reserved by calling (845) 256-4111, and will also be available at the door.