ITHACA – The magic of the circus comes alive in Running to Places’ “Pippin” – from jugglers to unicycles to acrobatics, the musical is a comedic extravaganza in the spirit of the recent Broadway revival. The production, a collaboration of R2P and Circus Culture, runs Jan. 12-14 at Cornell’s Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts.
The unconventional story tells of boy prince Pippin’s (Jasper Fearon) quest to find his purpose in life. The Leading Player (Imri Leshed) of a mysterious performance troupe acts as narrator and director of the quest, frequently breaking theater’s “fourth wall” to engage with the audience. King Charlemagne (Howard Kraskow), Pippin’s father, is distant and distracted, so Pippin decides to prove himself by becoming a soldier like his stepbrother Lewis (Aspen Earls). When the horror of a real battle ends that dream, Pippin’s quest takes him from the pleasures at his exiled grandmother’s (Julianna Cuevas) estate to the fiery passion of revolution, egged on by his stepmother, Fastrada (Alyssa Salerno). Things go from bad to worse for the directionless Pippin, until he meets widowed farm-owner Catherine (Cameron Park-Miller) and her young son Theo (Andrew Kaiser). Can love at last bring meaning into Pippin’s life?
“Pippin is even more poignant now when so much in our culture puts an emphasis on superficiality and appearance,” says Joey Steinhagen, R2P artistic director. “The strain from social media, when people think everyone else has the perfect life and vacation and feel their life should have more, means that Pippin resonates in a way it never did before.”
To convey the over-the-top outrageousness of the story, the show uses the vocabulary of the circus in the same way a conventional musical would use dance choreography, telling the story through movement set to music. “Fifty teenagers, most of whom have never done circus, are suddenly doing things that leave your jaw on the floor,” says Steinhagen. “Static trapeze, juggling, doing full splits suspended from aerial silks: it’s just what you think of when you think of Cirque du Soleil – but it’s a youth theatre doing these things.”
Circus Culture founder and director Amy Cohen says the enthusiasm of the cast members infuses the production with a spirit of fun. “The show is a testament to Steinhagen’s collaborative spirit,” she adds. “Our ethos and how we think about the world at Circus Culture – to be as inclusive as possible; to honor the unique individual’s gift, whether mental or physical – are so similar to R2P’s, that it’s a dream come true to work with them.”
“Pippin” was award-winning composer Steven Schwartz’s first musical; he went on to write other beloved shows including “Godspell” and “Wicked.” R2P resident music director Jeremy Pletter says that “musical theater history can be described as before and after Pippin. Schwartz revolutionized the genre by using modern day rock and pop. The songs, like ‘Corner of the Sky,’ are incredible.”
The show’s dance choreographer, Emily Healy of Circus Culture, and fight choreographer Holly Adams are fluent in both dance and circus movement, while Cohen oversees both the circus choreography and aerial set design; Copper Santiago contributed additional aerial coaching. Other members of the design team include Deborah Drew, set design; Elizabeth Woods, costume deisgn; Jordan Fearon, sound design; and Natty Simson, lighting designer, formerly a lighting designer at French Woods Festival of the Performing Arts.
This is R2P’s first time on the Schwartz Center stage, and Steinhagen says Cornell has been tremendously welcoming, with staff from the Department of Performing & Media Arts mentoring and training R2P company members, and Cornell employees helping with the show, including Vice President for University Relations Joel Malina who will play violin in the pit orchestra.
The exclusive show sponsor is Purity Ice Cream, with scholarship support from the Savage Club of Ithaca, Cayuga Medical Center, and an anonymous fund at the Community Foundation of Tompkins County; grant support from Community Arts Partnership of Tompkins County, the Park Foundation and the Triad Foundation, with additional season-long support from CSP Management.
“Pippin” runs Jan. 12-14, Friday and Saturday at 7 PM, Saturday and Sunday at 2 PM. Tickets are $15 general admission, $12 for students and seniors, available on-line at www.runningtoplaces.org.
Featured image: The cast of “Pippin” rehearses juggling skills at Circus Culture. Provided Photo