Solomon Parker is pulling out all the stops as the Leading Player in Monumental Theatre’s Pippin.
“There’s nothing that he’s not willing to try, and he works his butt off in this show,” director Rebecca Wahls says. “He’s running around, and he’s singing all of these songs in the key that the female Leading Player sang them in the revival — because he can and because it sounds incredible — while doing this insanely intense aerobic activity. It’s crazy. It’s breathtaking.”
But the 23-year-old Parker isn’t the only one giving his all in the production. The show’s other lead, Tiziano D’Affuso, is “equally breathtaking” as Pippin, says Wahls. “When I set out to cast this play, I didn’t have people in mind already. During auditions we saw tons of different types of people for the role, but Tiziano just is Pippin. I can’t imagine someone else.”
There’s a palpable feeling of possibility and youthful energy to the whole production — and that’s very much by design. Monumental Theatre, after all, is a Millennial-run outfit — and the recipient of the 2018 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company. In many ways, Monumental’s Pippin was conceived as a showcase of outstanding emerging theater artists. No one in the cast, for instance, is over the age of 27.
“It’s the first chance for a lot of people,” Wahls says, herself included: Pippin marks the first musical the 25-year-old has had the chance to direct outside of Capital Fringe and her small, fledgling theater collective Who What Where.
It helps that Pippin is an exuberant story at its heart, about a young man on a search of self-discovery. “It’s so, so relatable,” the 25-year-old D’Affuso says. “I think all of us at some point in our lives have felt like we don’t belong or we were searching for our purpose, and…what we’re meant to do in this world.” A supporting player in recent productions at Keegan Theatre and 1st Stage, D’Affuso is thrilled with the chance to play “someone who pretty much never leaves the stage.”
Unlike the recent Tony-winning revival, Monumental’s Pippin is not set in the circus, and the Leading Player is not a ringmaster. “The challenge that I set for myself was figuring out to make the story feel as if it is genuinely from Pippin’s perspective,” Wahls says. “For that to work, what I realized is that the Leading Player himself must be of Pippin.”
That is, the Leading Player is effectively the id to Pippin’s ego. He pushes the prince to pursue his passions for personal pleasure and power. “I’m giving life to that person we all have in our head, who is just telling us to go for it and go for it and go for it, whether it be bad, or it be good,” Parker says of his approach to portraying the character.
A Leading Player who is far more than just the show’s narrator “adds a whole series of layers to our relationship that people are not used to seeing,” says D’Affuso. “I think it’s much more interesting.” It helps that D’Affuso and Parker, both openly gay, work so beautifully together in the roles. “They’re such different humans that create this one complete whole, which is what’s so fascinating about them,” Wahls says. “The energy between them is just electric.”
Stephen Schwartz’s score, composed in an early-1970s pop style, features several standout numbers — “Magic To Do,” “Corner of the Sky,” “No Time At All” — but also “songs that are challenging to the contemporary ear,” says Wahls. In the Monumental production, numbers that sound somewhat dated, such as “War is a Science,” have been freshened up visually by adding hip-hop and “contemporary dance” moves, all overseen by choreographer Ahmad Maaty — with Bob Fosse’s stunning original choreography as the foundation. “One of [Maaty’s] big inspirations is Britney Spears,” D’Affuso says, “and the way he blends Fosse with Spears is remarkable. I’ve never seen anything like it. That’s why the choreography to me is one of the coolest parts of the show, because it’s so refreshing, it’s so different.”
“The things Ahmad has gotten the cast to do are just beautiful, out of this world,” Wahls says, citing Maaty’s work in her favorite number from the show, “Glory,” “an epic three-part song about Pippin going to war.” Ending in a “wild pantomimed battle,” Maaty has “the actors leaping out practically into the audience…. It’s visceral and it’s in your face.”
The production is further heightened by its staging in a thrust configuration, with the audience on three sides of the action — all brought to life by a cast of eleven. “We don’t need all the fancy pyrotechnics and all the fancy hydraulics that Broadway uses,” D’Affuso asserts. “We have this raw talent. These people are just incredible, and I’m so honored to be onstage with them because they’re just amazing.”
After a recent performance, Wahls says, “I noticed that people afterwards, it looked like they were breathing easier than they were when they walked in. And that’s what musical theater should be, right? It makes you think, but also makes you feel good.”
Pippin runs to July 30 at the Ainslie Arts Center in Episcopal High School, 3900 W. Braddock Rd., Alexandria. Tickets are $30 to $40. Call 703-933-3000 or visit monumentaltheatre.org.