‘Pippin’ seeks his ‘Corner of the Sky’ in new Manatee Players production
Rick Kerby wasn’t sure how many people would show up two months ago when the Manatee Players held auditions for its season-opening production of the hit 1972 musical “Pippin.”
The theater company had produced a few shows with small casts wearing face shields in front of limited-capacity and socially distanced audiences during the height of the pandemic.
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In early June, the surge of new cases caused by the delta variant had not yet hit, so Kerby was hopeful for a good turnout among community theater actors who had been starved for opportunities in the last year.
“We had a great turnout and I love my cast. They’re basically a dream team,” Kerby said. “The number of people who came out was pretty normal for us so that’s a good sign that people want to be back on stage.”
But there was a difference. The theater, like so many around the region and across the country, offered performers a chance to submit video audition tapes, “something that represents them well,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be a something from the show and we don’t ask them to read anything specifically. We would call them back for that.”
Video auditions may become a permanent part of the process, Kerby said, but he still needs to see performers in person.
“I can see it’s here to stay and it’s so much more convenient, especially for busy people who are volunteering their time,” he said. “But I would rather see the person face to face. When I get a video, the first thing I think is did they tape the song 20 times before they sent me the one good version they had. There’s nothing like an in-person audition.”
However they auditioned, Kerby said he has been excited to be back in a rehearsal room working on a full-scale musical, especially one like “Pippin,” which holds a special place in his memory.
“The first musical theater piece I ever saw was a college production of ‘Pippin.’ For me it was like going from black and white to color. I didn’t know those things existed,” he said.
The musical, with a score by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Roger O. Hirson, was one of the first he directed after joining the Manatee Players in 2003. Charlie Barnett, who has gone on to television and film roles, portrayed the Leading Player, with his future Juilliard School classmate and Broadway performer Andrew Foster playing the title role, in 2005.
More on 'Pippin,' the son of Charlemagne
Pippin is the son of Charlemagne who is on a journey to find himself or discover his “Corner of the Sky,” according to one of the show’s enduring songs.
While the show, songs and story are familiar to many theatergoers as it approaches its 50th anniversary next year, Kerby isn’t recreating past achievements. This new production is inspired by the circus-themed staging created by director Diane Paulus for a 2013 Broadway revival that ran nearly two years.
“The show is set in a big top and the circus is always there, and I’m kind of peppering in circus elements where it fits my purpose,” he said. The theater is working with Circus Minius, a Bradenton-based company that collaborated on the theater’s 2018 production of “Barnum.” Kerby has been doing some training of his cast, while Circus Minius performers will be appearing in lyra, web, silks, juggling, unicycle and acrobatic acts.
However it is staged, Kerby said the story “is always right for the times. Your search for your purpose and what your better self is and how you fit in.”
He is working with a cast featuring some of the most familiar and active community theater performers, led by Alex Zickafoose, choral director at Booker High School’s Visual and Performing Arts Center, in the title role. He also starred as Quasimodo in Kerby’s production of “Hunchback of Notre Dame” and as Crutchie in “Newsies.” Tay Marquise, a Booker grad who appeared in the theater’s “West Side Story” and ‘Newsies” returns as the Leading Player, a kind of magical narrator who leads Pippin through his journey. (The role earned a Tony Award for Ben Vereen.)
Cory Woomert plays Charlemagne, with Christina Capehart as his wife, Fastrada. Ellen Kleinschmidt plays Pippin’s wise and energetic grandmother and Sarah Cassidy plays Catherine, a young mother Pippin meets along the way.
Book by Roger O. Hirson, music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Directed and choreographed by Rick Kerby. Runs Aug. 12-22, Manatee Performing Arts Center, 502 Third Ave. W., Bradenton. 941-749-1111; manateeperformingartscenter.com
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