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THEATER REVIEW: Forty-nine years after its debut, ‘Pippin’ finally gains a fan

"Mac-Haydn has opened its shortened, though jam-packed 2021 season with a winner."

Mac-Haydn Theatre
Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, book by Roger O. Hirsch
Directed by John Saunders, choreographed by Elizabeth McGuire

“Take the time you’re given.”

Advice is hard to take, especially from the older generation. This is just common knowledge, but it escapes everyone until it makes too much sense to ignore. I was advised, for example, to give “Pippin” time, that I would like it eventually. It has never been among my favorite musicals. I saw it back in 1972 when it was new. I’ve seen it four more times when it was no longer new and neither was I. I didn’t like it. Now I am older, as old as Pippin’s grandmother Bertha.

I saw the show last night at the Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, New York and I have to admit I not only liked it, I loved it. I ask myself, “What happened?” Well, with time and exquisite production values that honor the text of the Roger O. Hirsch book of the show, director John Saunders has brought the show to me. Gone are the Bob Fosse quirks and awkward movements that everyone before now has forced upon me. Gone are the cutesy bits. In their place is a showcase for creative talents. This edition gives us the traveling troupe of players who have done this play many, many times, the generations passing along traditions, the musical variables that new singers add to tired songs, and the thrilling movement of choreographer Elizabeth McGuire.

Maya Cuevas as Catherine. Photo: Ann Kielbasa

Mac-Haydn has opened its shortened, though jam-packed 2021 season with a winner. New, fresh faces along with trusted old friends fill their reconceived stage. Fine singers and dancers take this old chestnut to new heights as many of them discover the show for the first time. Nothing freshens old theater quite like a new generation making it their own without reference to the original. Clementine Kline as Thea and Maya Cuevas as her mother, Catherine, are proof. Liz Gurland as Bertha adds a vigorous sensibility to the proceedings. With her one number, she invigorates the show. Cuevas manages to do the same thing with a moment that has always seemed false before. Her rendition of “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man” felt right to me, for the first time ever taking on its intended double meaning.

Kylan Ross uses his lisp to bring a youthfulness to the title character that is utterly charming. His introduction song, “Corner of the Sky,” once the most popular audition song in existence, felt absolutely right in his hands. Pippin actually grew as a character as the book progressed. He is both a talented actor and singer, which he proved during the two-hour-and-15-minute evening.

As the Leading Player, Amber Mawande-Spytek takes her audience on the authors’ journey. She is deliberate, forceful, and dynamic in this role and she delivers every moment with an assertive quality that is both endearing and alarming. I can easily picture her at a womens’ rights rally, rallying her troops, enabling individuals while tamping down the masses. Spytek maintains control beautifully.  She sings, acts, and moves through the show like an independent rising star who knows that the show isn’t hers, but runs it anyway.

Kylan Ross as Pippin and Liz Gurland as Bertha. Photo: Ann Kielbasa

Her assistant, Player with Fire, is performed by David Aaron. He is a truly magnificent performer. The physical opposite of Kylan Ross and the other men in the show, a superb dancer, and a choreographer whose work was seen here in “Xanadu” back in 2015, his movements were riveting. You almost get the feeling that the Leading Player has kept him for herself for her own amusement; their interplay has an intimate quality. Saunders, without a word added to the script, makes them into a counterpoint for Pippin and Catherine and their difficult romance as observed in her final song.

Mikel Hunter does a fine job as Charles, as does Andrew Burton Kelley as Lewis. Their mutual relative, Fastrada, is well performed by Ashley DeLane Burger. The entire company performs well, both vocally and physically.

The costumes designed by Angela Carstensen are perfect for this production, as are the sets by Emma Cummings, who uses the new and enlarged stage wonderfully. The highly colorful lighting, designed by Andrew Gmoser, adds mightily. The sound, designed and run by Corbin Whiite, was also good.

I never anticipated recommending “Pippin” to anyone, but I do it wholeheartedly this time around. Never liking something, it appears, needn’t be forever, a lifetime aversion. Brilliant insight can turn things around, as Saunders version of this show proves.

“Pippin” plays at the Mac-Haydn Theatre, 1925 Rt. 203 in Chatham, New York, through August 8. For information and tickets, call 518-392-9292 or visit the Mac-Haydn website.


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