Pippin returns to Carnegie Mellon

Carnival weekend was filled with talk of booths and buggy races, but there was another event to get people talking: Scotch ’n’ Soda’s performance of Pippin. Scotch ’n’ Soda is Carnegie Mellon’s student-run theater group — that includes acting, directing, costume and set design, and tech crew. According to director Matt Joachim, there were 85 students involved in this weekend’s presentation of Pippin.

Pippin was originally written for Scotch ’n’ Soda in 1967 by Ron Strauss and Stephen Schwartz, both of whom were Carnegie Tech students at the time. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the original premier. “Scotch ’n’ Soda has a special connection with Pippin; we were the first in the world to produce it,” said Joachim, a junior in business administration.

The show was originally called Pippin, Pippin, and is “an entirely different show than we have today,” according to music director Matthew Aument, a first-year music composition major. The show was rewritten for Broadway in the early 1970s, but, according to Joachim, the story of why and how certain parts were rewritten is largely speculative and will differ depending on who tells the story.

What is known for sure is that a new script was written by playwright Roger O. Hirson (Walking Happy) and that Schwartz rewrote the music. While the reasoning behind Hirson’s script is unknown, there is a basic idea of how the changes happened. According to Joachim, Schwartz says that the second act was written only after director Hal Prince encouraged Schwartz and Hirson to elaborate on some of the title characters’ adventures, after seeing an audition of the show. Eventually, director and choreographer Bob Fosse (Chicago) was hired to direct the show, and some believe that he “significantly altered the script and added in a lot of the cynicism that remains in the work today,” according to Joachim.

As promised in the opening musical number, “Magic to do,” Pippin has elements of intrigue, humor, romance, sex, illusion, and war. “It’s not the most together show,” said Aument, “but it’s fun, it’s entertaining, and the story’s cool.”

Pippin began with Leading Player (senior English major Kami Smith), who invited the audience to enjoy the show in the opening musical number. Smith’s voice and posture suggested that the Leading Player was not as innocent as she seemed. The number is performed by the Players together as they introduce the show.

Pippin tells the story of King Charlemagne’s son, Pippin, who is a recent college graduate. Played by first-year vocal performance major Ian McEuen, Pippin is in search of a fulfilling life, and pursues this goal throughout the play. It isn’t until the end of the play that Pippin realizes that he isn’t destined to be extraordinary; he chooses a simple life over one that’s unforgettable and dangerous.

In a powerful scene, the Leading Player attempts to convince Pippin to participate in the final act of the show — “the grand finale.” “[The] Leading Player [kind] of manipulates Pippin throughout the entire show so that he will perform in the grand finale,” explained Smith. “Essentially, this finale is Pippin killing himself.” When Pippin refuses, the Leading Player, now angry, orders the set to be removed and the orchestra to leave. The orchestral pit is exposed when the curtains fall, and the audience watches as the musicians pack up and exit the stage. The Leading Player challenges Pippin to “try singing without music,” then leaves the stage. Pippin and Catherine (Pippin’s lover, played by senior English major Danielle Griswold) leave together, while Theo (Catherine’s son, H&SS first-year Noah Levin) is left behind. In a dark ending, the Leading Player takes the young boy as her next “star” and a willing participant in the grand finale. Presumably, the story will repeat itself.

Particularly memorable scenes include “Welcome Home,” in which Pippin and Charlemagne (played by first-year music composition major Scott Wasserman) talk after Pippin returns from college; “With You,” where two women (played by first-year vocal performance major Alexa Devlin and Danielle Griswold) seduce Pippin; and “Prayer for a Duck,” where Pippin tries to cure a young boy’s duck by praying.

Scotch ’n’ Soda’s presentation of Pippin has been in the making since early February when the show was cast. Joachim estimates that around 800 hours of rehearsal and work have been put into the show — all for eight hours of performance. All members of the cast were expected to be what Joachim calls “triple threats,” meaning that they can sing, dance, and act all at once.

Pippin was performed in Rangos Hall in the University Center. The set was minimal and included a throne and black boxes, which served at varying times as a bed, a table, chairs, and platforms to raise actors higher off the stage. The stage had audience seating around three of its sides, making for a technically difficult performance. “The unique staging of this production has made every part of our tech crew have to overcome obstacles around every corner,” explained Joachim.

All of the cast members were vocally strong and perfectly cast. The technical staff and pit also provided a great deal of depth to the show, adding creative lighting and musical accompaniment. The choreography was thoroughly executed as well, and the actors made full use of the stage. The directors made good use of the undertones of the show, as well. In “Spread a Little Sunshine,” Fastrada (Pippin’s stepmother, played by first-year BHA student Shannon Deep) sings and dances while holding onto different murder weapons, which could lead to the death of either Pippin or Charlemagne.

At one point in the show, Pippin goes to his grandmother Berthe for advice about feeling “empty and vacant.” Played by economics sophomore Alex DiClaudio, Berthe responds with a song, “No Time at All,” and the audience was encouraged to sing along during the choruses; some of the actors even danced on stage holding Pippin programs, which included lyrics. A college-aged male playing a graying old lady, DiClaudio showed off his acting skills while embodying Berthe, who told Pippin to live a little and do some “frolicking.”

Through the rest of the show, the impressive staging, dancing, and singing captivated the audience. The actors were charismatic and energetic, keeping the crowd engaged throughout the show. “I have never worked with a group of people so set on the common goal of making one damn good show,” said McEuen. “Matt Joachim is an outstandingly talented director...[and] Courtney Kochuba is a better choreographer than some professionals that I have worked with.”

While Pippin was a huge success, it does not appear as if another alumni-written work will be produced soon by Scotch ’n’ Soda. “What is important to recognize is that Scotch ’n’ Soda was founded to premiere student-written work and I feel like we are getting back on track to producing more student written plays and musicals in the upcoming seasons,” said Joachim.