A quest for identity is not a novel idea for a musical, nor is it one that allows for a vast range of interpretation. “Pippin” is perhaps one of the most frequently performed high school productions in the nation, leaving many ideas tired and overdone. But Central Academy of Technology and Arts delivered the energetic, thought-provoking show with creative design ideas and character perspectives.
This “Pippin” allowed its audiences to consider their own desires, temptations and, most importantly, their decisions in a vivacious production about growing up.
Nkeki Obi-Melekwe invited us into the world of tyrannical kings and flamboyant circus performers as the Leading Player. She commanded attention and pushed the show with a velocity reminiscent of Patina Miller, who won a Tony for the role last year.
The Leading Player remains a static character, determined to perform for the audience and deliver “an extraordinary finale.” Mark Goodson delivered a commendable performance as Pippin, displaying an innocent (though unlikely) heroic quality. T.J. Schmidt gave a memorable portrayal as pompous Charlemagne, providing humor in particularly intense scenes. The ensemble provided vocal support and acrobatic amusement but remained stagnant during many of the scenes, looking more like props than actual characters.
The show’s title character, son of the powerful and charismatic king Charlemagne, is stuck in an identity crisis. He attempts to become a warrior, a lover, a revolutionary, a king and a peasant to find his “corner of the sky.” The final 15 minutes of the show depict Pippin’s rebellion against the Leading Player’s dominance over the production, as he chooses to live a simple, authentic life rather than a scripted, extraordinary one.
This production took much from the 2013 revival, including the use of circus elements. Ensemble and principle characters alike performed back handsprings, flips and a myriad of other gymnastics. The onstage band helped the actors stay on the beat but occasionally detracted from the performance, usually because of volume.
For almost the entire show, Pippin is a character without an objective. He staggers around the stage, isolated from all group choreography and elevated during his solos, looking for a niche to which he can belong. He experiments with war, sex, and power to satisfy this desire but doesn’t face the consequences, so he’s not trapped by his circumstances.
He continually claims to be extraordinary, but as the show progresses, the audience sees he’s not. He’s insecure, imperfect, confused, just as many young people are today: Teenagers strive to find a sense of belonging but frequently feel isolated from many aspects of modern society.
This show epitomizes the adolescent desire to belong, juxtaposed with circus performers and medieval costuming. The accusation “Compromiser,” delivered in the second act, resonates with many teenagers who prefer to fulfill expectations placed upon them rather than pursue their own passions, as extraordinary as they might be.