‘Pippin’ a flashy, splashy stage staple
“Pippin” is an unusual show for its era. Premiering in 1972, it’s a postmodern musical in every sense of the term: It’s presented as a grand production by a troupe of performers who comment on the action with the insistence of a Greek chorus, and it breaks down the fourth wall and tramples over it.
The show has since become a musical theater favorite, and it was revamped for a Tony Award-winning Broadway revival in 2013. That version of “Pippin” has now been given a national tour, and it hits the INB Performing Arts Center next week as part of the Best of Broadway series.
What separates this new “Pippin” from the one audiences saw in the early ’70 is its elaborate staging. This version doubles down on the original’s formal daring by fully embracing its own showiness, marrying Bob Fosse’s famous choreography with aerial stunts and high-wire acrobatics.
“It’s the type of show where your eyes can’t leave the stage, because there’s so much happening,” said actress Housso Semon. “Once you see the show, you’ll think, ‘Why wouldn’t anyone want to be in this?’ ”
Boasting a rock score by Stephen Schwartz (“Godspell,” “Wicked”), “Pippin” tells the tale of its titular prince, who is unfulfilled with his sheltered life of privilege. Wanting to experience the world beyond his castle walls, he first attempts to find gratification on the battlefield alongside his father, the haughty king known as Charlemagne, before venturing out on his own to explore his intellectual and romantic impulses.
Semon will be seen on the INB stage as the Leading Player, a role that was originated on Broadway by the great Ben Vereen. She describes the character as the ringmaster of the show’s circus-like troupe, deliberately steering the story in unexpected directions, teasing the audience with things to come and influencing the decisions Pippin ultimately makes.
“(The Leading Player) is in charge of everybody. Whatever she says, goes,” Semon said. “She’s very charming and seductive, but stern. She can charm anyone, but the minute she needs to put things in order, it will be done at the snap of a finger.”
Semon, 25, was born in Ivory Coast and grew up in Ithaca, New York, and she says she developed a love for musical theater at an early age. She attended the American Musical and Dramatic Academy and has performed in several New York productions, but “Pippin” is her first touring show, and she says most of her co-stars are also new to life on the road.
“It’s exciting,” Semon said. “It’s something that we’ve all really wanted to do, so we’re all eager to see what becomes of our work.”
All that hard work promises a finished product that’s all flashy, splashy spectacle. But for all of its stylistic (and literal) gymnastics, “Pippin” has remained a staple of the stage because it tells an elemental story about the search for purpose. The show’s themes may not be anything new, but they’re being examined from strange angles.
“It’s about wanting to do something fulfilling and seeking to be the best you can possibly be,” Semon said. “Sometimes the most wonderful things are right in front of us, and we don’t need to push further to look. I think it reminds people that what you have can be enough.”