Stage Left’s production of “Pippin!” was absolutely worth that exclamation point. Miami University's only student-run musical theatre organization brought their characteristic enthusiasm to a performance equal parts amusing and disconcerting.
The musical is loosely set in Charlemagne’s France, though historical accuracy is not the point of “Pippin.” The story follows the young prince Pippin and his epic journey in search of fulfillment through war (represented by a stirring and well-choreographed dance battle), sex (an interpretive dance orgy) and a stint on a farm (a number involving feather boas and chicken beaks), all the while the Leading Player, who acts as a narrator of sorts, and her troupe urge him toward a dramatic finale.
The show was first conceived by Tony-nominated composer Stephen Schwartz in the 1970s as a student musical, and utilized the “Brechtian distancing effect,” an idea pioneered by the playwright Bertolt Brecht that uses fourth wall breaks to force audiences to consciously think about the decisions of the characters and confront their own joys and frustrations. The experimental aspects of the musical were on full display in Stage Left’s production as the actors blurred the line between performance and reality.
That experimental nature of the musical allows directors plenty of freedom in staging their own productions. The 2013 Broadway revival revitalized the material by turning the Leading Player and her troupe into a ringleader of circus performers. The East West Players production in Los Angeles featured a hip-hop and anime theme.
Micki Smolenski, a senior software engineering student and the director and choreographer of Stage Left’s production, went with a “burlesque/cabaret” theme.
“I wanted to make it accessible to the stage, and circus just seemed a little too out there,” Smolenski said. “The cabaret or burlesque theme, I just felt it was the best because it could shine not only for our actors but for the space as well.”
“Pippin” as a show is intrinsically tied to the legacy of its first director and choreographer, Bob Fosse, who turned the show into “a hot and seriously cool seduction of an audience,” as Ben Brantley of The New York Times described it.
That’s a difficult atmosphere to replicate, but Stage Left’s ensemble brought a remarkable energy to the show, whether rolling on the stage as farm animals or somersaulting and cartwheeling their way through the Fosse-inspired choreography. The numbers the entire cast sang together were the best of the performance, particularly “Morning Glow” and “Finale.”
The cast also sprinkled some anachronistic jokes that were a huge hit with the modern audience. But the true crowd favorite was Ezra, a golden labrador and 4 Paws trainee that appeared to uproarious applause in the second act.
Madelyn Jett was enchanting and disturbing as the Leading Player, who became increasingly unhinged as the show went on and was a delightful foil to Sean Montgomery’s earnest portrayal of Pippin.
“This was, by far, I think, the best show Stage Left has put on since I’ve been here,” Montgomery said after the show wrapped. “It was the most professional cast in a profound way. Everyone just came to do one thing and that was put on the show and I think everybody nailed it.”
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The show was exceptionally well-cast. Senior theatre major Al Oliver III stole the show as Fastrada, as he served look after look and snuck conspiratorial winks to the audience. Emily Stowers in the role of Catherine had the pipes and the range, moving from power ballad to love song and screaming exposition with accordion accompaniment in between. At the end of “Kind of Woman,” Stowers sustained a note for so long it lasted through two rounds of applause.
Costuming for the show leaned heavily on mesh shirts and tap pants, which accentuated the cabaret theme, and there was some truly excellent prop work with a severed head.
The performance closed with Pippin and Catherine fleeing the theater and the Leading Player and her troupe creeping menacingly back onto the stage, reminding the audience that the show must go on, whether you want it to or not.