Duke Ellington School of the Arts
Spectacle versus simplicity. Is life's purpose found in the things you did or the connections you made? This is the question Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology intended to answer with their production of Pippin on Saturday, April 29, 2023. From a versatile set to extravagant and intentional lighting, to consistent character choices and understanding from the actors, Thomas Jefferson left the audience with the answer of where life's purpose is truly found, and whether the spectacle is worth the sacrifice.
Pippin was originally a student show, performed by students of Carnegie Mellon University's Scotch Soda troupe, but the show was completely changed by the time it premiered on Broadway at the Imperial Theater on October 23, 1972, with the book by Roger O. Hirson and music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. The first rendition closed on June 12, 1977, and won many 1973 Tony Awards, including Best Direction of a Musical. In 2013 the show was revived, premiering on March 23, 2013, also winning many Tonys, including Best Revival of a Musical. The show follows the life of a boy named Pippin, the son of King Charlemagne, and his journey to find his life's purpose under the direction of the narrator and story's constructor: Leading Player. This performance uses the "Theo ending," which shifts focus to Theo, the son of Catherine, who is Pippin's love interest. The ending implies that Theo will go on the same journey Pippin did.
Pippin (Prajeet Chitty) led the show with great energy, shown through comedic timing and large expressions. The narrator, Leading Player (Yasmin Kudrati-Plummer), successfully showed Leading Player's progression to an antagonistic personality, peaking at their show's "failure" as Pippin chose a simple life over their spectacle ending. This progression was shown through character choices they integrated throughout the show, such as micromanaging tendencies and an underlying villainous demeanor. Their sultry, melodious voice carried many of the show's songs, and their character shone through even in song. Pippin's father, King Charlemagne (Sri Vellakkat), and Pippin had a great father-son dynamic, and Vellakkat played the role of a self-righteous and unjust king, along with his comedic nature, extremely well, which shone in his death scene. The emotional tension was palpable, and Vellakkat understood his character beyond his comedic demeanor. The ensemble understood the story that was being told and worked to show the fullness of their characters and the story's message, which was enhanced by the technical aspects of lighting and set design.
Lighting, headed by designers Cullan Kelley, Ella Clarke, and Charles Bucher, consisted of more than 318 cues and worked to show the spectacle of Pippin. With lights built into the set, the stage sparkled and transported the audience into the circus-esque energy of the show. The designers also showed the stark contrast between Pippin's time in the simple life versus the spectacle life by not employing the stage lights and only using simple colors. The set, designed and constructed by TJTA's Pippin Set Design Team, was extremely versatile. The throne was used in a variety of ways, including during castle scenes and as a ladder and wall for the main set. Because of the flexibility of the set, the transitions to different locations flowed smoothly. All technical aspects contributed to Pippin's message, flow, and theme.
From clear character portrayals, intentional lighting choices, and a flexible set, Thomas Jefferson's Drama Department understood the theme and message of Pippin and immersed the audience in the tale's telling. While the show ends open-mindedly, the message of Pippin is clear due to the contributions of all workers in this production.
The New School of Northern Virginia
In the opening number of Pippin, the Leading Player (Yasmin Kudrati-Plummer) declares the cast has "Magic to Do," and magic is what Thomas Jefferson High School delivered in their thrilling rendition of Stephen Schwartz's and Roger O. Hirson's Broadway classic. The 1972 musical tells the story of Pippin (Prajeet Chitty), an unfulfilled young prince searching for meaning in his life - and being manipulated along the way by the mysterious Leading Player, who aims to guide him to a fiery demise. Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology's Pippin was humorous, passionate, and above all, a spectacle, with every detail made pitch-perfect to combine into a stunning whole.
Prajeet Chitty was excellent as Pippin, never faltering despite the large amount of stage time required by the part. His vocals were consistently great, but most impressive were his a cappella moments towards the end, where he stuck to the melody perfectly. Yet, it was his facial acting that truly carried the performance: during any song, you could look to Pippin and see his reaction, constantly changing to suit the song's mood, which was especially vital in the climatic Finale, where Chitty conveyed Pippin's internal struggle throughout the song without saying a word.
Yasmin Kudrati-Plummer was a stunning counterpart in her role as the Leading Player, with amazingly clear and overall wonderful-sounding vocals. She completely captured the Leading Player's menacing aura as well as shining in her moments of faux affability, with her big moment towards the end where the Leading Player begs someone, anyone, to embrace her spectacle chilling the audience into silence. Her dancing was also top-notch, as was the entire ensemble's.
The supporting cast never missed a beat either. Riva Jain as Pippin's love interest Catherine wowed with her own a cappella moments, singing an entire solo song sans backing music to represent her breaking free from the Leading Player's control. Sri Vellakkat embodied the looming sternness of Pippin's father Charlemagne, particularly during the end of act one where he calmly expresses his might-makes-right philosophy to a rebellious and poised-for-violence Pippin. Fastrada (Ella Tysse), Lewis (Nathan Thomas), and Berthe (Evelyne Breed), who made up the rest of Pippin's family, provided much-needed comedy, with Berthe's song "No Time At All” proving a particular standout with the audience interaction involved.
The acting was matched by the exceptional tech elements. The choreography by Asha Das and Inaayah Khan was non-elaborate but fun, and matched each emotional beat in the songs perfectly, with Cullan Kelley's fight choreography providing an enjoyable break in the song "Glory." The sound mixing by Charles Bucher, Natalie Nardone, and Dylan Truncellito was great, with the leads and ensemble balanced well. Efforts were clearly taken by costume designers Evelyne Breed, Inaayah Khan, and Mayuka Valluri, along with set designers Hannah Frieden, Dani Hunter, and Sri Vellakkat, to make delightfully medieval-esque designs.
But the element that truly was above and beyond was the lighting, designed by Charles Bucher, Ella Clarke, and Cullan Kelley. The fantastic incorporation of it into the set and costumes, with light boards on every structure (and even on the Leading Player's dress for good measure), was incredibly effective. From the first moment of the show to the last, it dazzled, providing the perfect background for each and every song, with different colors wheeling across it as the show's mood changed. The level of detail and effort shown there was on display throughout in every aspect of this production, and what made it an absolute privilege to witness this show.