It’s Monday night, five days to opening curtain, and the cast of “Pippin” is on the stage in a darkened Auburn Avenue Theater, running through a musical number.
At a critical moment in the action, the voice of co-director Joe Blottner, like the disembodied voice of some god, calls attention from the shadows to a bit of awkward stage business.
Laptop in hand, choreographer Kristen Grace materializes from her second row seat, glides forward.
“Not shi-bop, it’s more of a shi-shi,” says Grace, a departure from her more common instruction, “do it slinky.”
A few gyrations and deft moves later, the girl, already a seasoned actress and dancer, does her bit flawlessly, Grace slips back to her seat, and the action picks up again.
Presented by the Auburn Community Teen Players.“Pippin,” the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, opens for four shows this weekend: 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday, with 2 o’clock matinees on Saturday and Sunday at the historic theater, 10 Auburn Ave. Tickets are $12.
Here’s what it’s about.
For starters, the musical typically hits the stage as a play within a play, which centers on a band of merry players making its way through some countryside of the Middle Ages, performing “Pippin: His Life and Times,” for rural audiences.
All action centers on Pippin, the callow son of Emperor Charlemagne, who, under the guidance of a mysterious character called Leading Player. tries out different roles and pleasures in life in a frustrated search for purpose.
At the same time, however, this acclaimed 1972 Ray Fosse work is a complex psychological study that fuses Pippin’s inner life with the outer reality of the players.
Actors repeatedly break the fourth wall between cast and crowd to explain what is happening. As when Leading Player assures the audience of an ending like no other.
But co-directors and husband and wife team, Suzie Newbury and Joe Blottner, have put their own spin on the production, setting it at Holy Roman Empire Academy, a private school that has lost its funding and is staging a play to keep the doors open.
“We decided we wanted to make it a little more relative to the high school kids, so we’ve updated it to be now,” Newbury said.
Grace mingles hip hop with Fosse’s original jazz choreography, cannily juxtaposing the styles to emphasize dramatic tensions within the action.
“She’s added another dimension that ‘Pippin’ doesn’t have, which is a whole hip-hop layer along with classic Bob Fosse style jazz choreography,” an appreciative Newbury said of Grace.
Each actor, Blottner said, had to work up two different characters: one, a student at HRE Academy; and another, a character within the play they are staging.
“We had each actor choose high school stereotypes like teacher, cheer coach, soccer coach, principal, but most of them are in a group of leather-clad Goths,” said Newbury.
“The result is you have a sage ruler who is also a cheerleader. That adds another layer of character on top of the first. It’s something they had to figure out, and it really got their acting chops going,” Newbury said.
All the actors had to pay a fee to be involved, a modest investment to ensure they’ll be there until the production has completed its run, said Jim Kleinbeck, who coordinates all shows at the theater for the city of Auburn.
The cast is composed entirely of 28 teens, ages 14 to 19. The principal actors are: Rodger Skaggs as Pippin; Katie Newbury as Leading Player; Jessica Rumrill as Catherine, Pippin’s love interest; AJ Newbury as Charlemagne; Callie Basler as Pippin’s plotting stepmother, Fastrada: Delaney Goodwin as Pippin’s spirited grandmother; Ryen Glynn as Catherine’s son, Theo; and Ellie Newbury as Pippin’s sister, Lewis.