At freeFall Theatre, they’ve got magic to do.
Artistic director Eric Davis is conjuring another crowd-pleasing show out of thin air. In this case, it’s Pippin, Stephen Schwartz’s beloved 1972 musical, and winner of the 2013 Tony Award for Best Revival.
It’s this 2013 version that Davis, longtime freeFall musical director Michael Raabe and six members of the cast of seven are rehearsing today. Daniel Maldonado, who’s playing the title character, sings the tender ballad “With You,” evolving into a pas de deux with Alison Burns, in the role of Fastrada.
Davis, who’s also developed the choreography, stops them to make minor adjustments to the steps; sometimes he’ll ask them to tweak the dialogue, just slightly. They move in synch with their director, whether they’re singing, dancing or acting. And it gets noticeably better with each pass.
As Emanuel Carrero joins in to make it a three-person dance, the tempo picks up, the actors fly across the floor, and Raabe alternates between playing his keyboard and tapping out rhythms on the top of his piano. The full band will come in later in the rehearsal process.
The atmosphere in freeFall’s rehearsal space is electric with anticipation; the cast and crew have been working on Pippin virtually nonstop for several weeks, and everyone is excited to reveal it to Tampa Bay (opening night is July 12).
There are no theatrical bells and whistles at today’s rehearsal, no costumes, lights, sets or effects. That, too, will come soon enough.
Pippin is the story of one man’s search for purpose in his life. He is accompanied on his journey by the members of an omnipresent and mysterious performance troupe, who point him in various directions, with consequences that are sometimes profound, sometimes humorous and sometimes disastrous.
Kind of like life itself.
The plot is actually secondary to the sharply-etched characterizations, and of course Schwartz’s songs – “Corner of the Sky,” “With You,” “Morning Glow,” “Love Song” and “Magic to Do” have become part of the lexicon of musical theater over the years.
“He writes fun pop songs with a lot of pastiches,” explains Raabe. “He references anything from the Beach Boys to – there’s a lot of James Taylor feel to the ballads. And there’s also the Motown kind of feel.”
Everyone in the cast sings – there are solos, duets, quartets, even six-part, spine-tingling choral numbers.
“Deciding exactly what I wanted to use for this was a hard decision,” continues Raabe. “The easy choice would have been piano, bass, guitar, drums. But I went back and forth, and instead of using bass, we’re using cello, to kind of give it a chamber rock feel.”
Raabe and Davis have the easy sort of collaborative back-and-forth that comes from working closely together – and hitting so many shows out of the park – for a decade.
“It’s a fun play space, and it’s honest storytelling – it’s fun to approach that, and where does the music line up with telling that story?” Raabe says. “We talked a lot about it. The show is a small, pared-down, chamber in-your-face version, so we wanted the orchestration to match that.”
Including the lead and supporting characters, Pippin is written for a cast of 16 or 17; half of them are members of the ‘troupe.’ And the 2013 revival turned the show into an actual circus, with acrobats and a trapeze.
Davis loved the challenge of not only using a smaller cast, but of stripping Pippin back to its essential elements and creating something … different. That’s what he does.
“To do it with seven people, we have to sort of completely re-imagine how that happens,” he says. “How things work, and who takes what, can start to become very interesting. And create new experiences and fun choices.”
Despite all the sweetness and light on display there is, he explains, quite a bit of darkness in the script. “I think the way we explore it will be pretty unique. Because it’s only become more relevant, what the question at the end asks. Which is ‘What are you willing to do for a moment of glory? Will you jump into the fire, and be burned up, for a moment of notoriety?’ And is that really what life is about?”
South Florida native Kellie Rhianne has the central role of the Leading Player, the Machiavellian ringmaster of Pippin’s traveling roadshow.
She lives outside Orlando, and pays the bills by appearing, several times a day, five days a week, in tourist-friendly theatrical productions at theme parks.
In The Festival of the Lion King, Rhianne explains, an actor doesn’t have a lot of room for exploration or experimentation. There’s really no “changing it up” involved. “With Disney or Universal, you get to bring that pure joy,” she says. “People go there to escape, in that happy sense.
“But in the theater, people do come to escape – but also, to think. And to learn, and to grow. And if we’ve done our jobs, they’re going to leave a show like Pippin thinking about things, their lives and how they want to move forward. Thinking about political things that are going on in the world today.”
Rhianne is also active in regional theater – she recently played Shug in The Color Purple and Mimi in Rent – but this marks her freeFall debut.
“I made a post on Facebook about how I was working at this theater,” she says, “and so many of my theater friends in town were like ‘This is one of my favorite theaters that I’ve worked in – in all of Florida or anywhere, ever.’”
Although the role of the Leading Player was originated on Broadway by Ben Vereen, and is usually played by a male actor, the gender-bending began in earnest with the 2013 revival, with Patina Miller as the Leading Player (she, like Vereen in ’73, was rewarded with a Tony). Ciara Renee also played the role to great acclaim.
“I had a lot of people coming up to me saying ‘You need to do that show,’” Rhianne laughs, “because we’re similar types in terms of that character – I can be a little extra sometimes, and the character is very much like ‘I’m the star! Here I am!’ And so it had always been in the back of my mind.”
Much of the success of Pippin relies on the chemistry between the Leading Player and Pippin himself – and as Davis works a dialogue scene between Rhianne and New York actor/singer Daniel Maldonado, he is clearly satisfied that the tumblers have all fallen into place. There are a lot of smiles.
Maldonado, like Rhianne, is new to freeFall.
He did see the Pippin revival in the big city, knowing little to nothing about the plot when he went in.
“You hear the word Pippin and you think, what the hell is that about?” he laughs. “You can try to explain it, but it throws a lot of curveballs at you. The biggest one being the play-within-the-play aspect, how it’s really just a troupe of players putting on this production.
“But when I saw the production, I was completely blown away. And I fell in love. So when I got the opportunity to come down and play Pippin, I absolutely took it. When you get a chance like this to play a role that you saw and connected with, and felt something from, you go for it.”
A major component of the magic it does is Schwartz’s incandescent music. “Some composers write wonderful music, but not great lyrics,” Maldonado explains. “This composer, he gives you everything. I absolutely love singing ‘Corner of the Sky,’ and ‘Extraordinary’ and ‘With You,’ because melodically they fulfill everything that you want as a vocalist and as an actor.
“And then you have these beautiful, poetic lyrics to tie intro it. To just carry you along.”
Tickets and info here.