Diversionary Theatre brings back James Vasquez to stage their ‘biggest tech show’ yet
By Charlene Baldridge | SDUN Reporter
“We’re having a blast putting our crazy show together,” said director James Vasquez. The show is Stephen Schwartz’s classic 1972 musical, “Pippin,” which took over Diversionary Theatre in University Heights Sept. 6 for a five-week run.
The hot young director in town, Vasquez recently staged Diversionary’s world-premiere hit, “Harmony, Kansas.” Since 2003, he has helmed The Old Globe’s “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” with other Globe credits that include “The Rocky Horror Show,” “Emma” – as associate director – and “Boeing-Boeing.” He received the Craig Noel San Diego Critics Circle Award for his co-direction of Cygnet’s “Sweeney Todd,” proving he has an ear for song and a heart for humankind, which makes him the perfect shepherd for the elusive “Pippin.”
Schwartz is author of the phenomenal hit musical, “Wicked,” yet “Pippin” began as a student production when Schwartz was in college. The original piece was directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse, and starred Ben Vereen as the manipulative Leading Player, who guides or pushes – depending upon perspective – the title character through his picaresque search for adulthood.
In Roger O. Hirson’s book, Pippin is the gauche eldest son of the mythical King Charlemagne, who is wed to Fastrada (played by Luke Jacobs), who prefers that her son, Lewis, inherit the throne. “She” makes Pippin’s life miserable.
Vasquez calls “Pippin” a universal coming-of-age story with appeal for everyone. “We reach these points in our lives – whether at 20 or 30 or 50 – where we have to rediscover who we are, re-configure and accept,” he said.
Pippin (Louis Pardo) discovers that he is not cut out for military life, decides that someone as extraordinary as he needs to discover something extraordinary to do with his life. Hence, the quest, which acquaints him with love, reacquaints him with his grandmother and allows him to accept himself.
Though Vasquez intends to be faithful to the score and the script – the official one sanctioned by Schwartz – he said he “dirties it up a bit” with numerous gender switches and modern elements, like social media and extreme voyeurism. “It’s the idea of reality television,” Vasquez said, “and how obsessed we are as a society with everybody else’s business.”
It seemed natural that Vasquez’s gender bending include the casting of Courtney Corey as the Leading Player. The two first met 15 years ago in a Welk Theatre production of “No, No, Nanette.” Corey was a protégée of the late, great Priscilla Allen at San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts. She also attended San Diego State University, and from there, moved into the Broadway touring companies of “Rent” and “Wicked.” San Diegans know her from her recent performances in North Coast Rep’s “Lend me a Tenor” and San Diego Rep’s “The Great American Trailer Musical.”
In an update just prior to technical rehearsals at Diversionary, Vasquez said working with Corey again is a good for the production. Calling “Pippin” a “big show,” he also said it was challenging; yet a challenge he is able to meet with the constant support Diversionary has given the team.
Charlene Baldridge: What have you discovered about Pippin – the show and character – that you didn’t know before?
James Vasquez: It’s a big show. Boy oh boy, is it a big show, and we’re doing it with a cast of only 8, intentionally. There have been challenges in making that work … but within those challenges we’ve discovered some fun ways of storytelling, forcing us and our audience to really think outside of the box and take this journey.
We set out to tell “Pippin” in our voice, and every day we find more relevance to our modern times. It’s really quite a brilliant script in that way. It’s so specific to a certain time, but is full of such universal themes that we’ve found it really easy to relate to each in our own personal way.
Not speaking for every production of “Pippin” out there, but certainly the ones I’ve seen, the role of Pippin has always been played as a weak, dreamy-eyed guy. Thankfully, that’s not Louis Pardo’s personality at all. He has a confident and outgoing presence and isn’t afraid of falling down and getting back up to start over.
I think that’s what we’ve really discovered about our Pippin. He knows there’s a place for him somewhere in this world, but keeps bumping up against gigantic walls. He could turn around and quit, or fight to get over that [next] wall. He may not like what’s on the other side, but he’s determined to find out.
CB: What have you discovered about Courtney [Corey] that you never dreamed?
JV: Courtney surprises and teaches us something new everyday. She comes to us with such a strong background and resume, and is so willing to play and try things, proving herself a real role model. It’s been fun to watch her create the role of Leading Player in such a way that she’s become much more than just our tour guide or emcee for the evening. Her character is flawed and struggles to maintain total control, leaving us to wonder whether she’s fighting for the good guys or the bad.
CB: And what of Schwartz? Have you been in contact with him?
JV: I have many direct sources to Mr. Schwartz, but we’ve yet to reach out to him. It’s been fun figuring it out for ourselves, finding our “Pippin” and what it means to us in the here and now. I hope he’ll come see it, though.
CB: What shed the most light on the project?
JV: Well, certainly the modern and totally invasive world we live in, but even more so, my fantastic cast and production team. I always come into a project with very strong and specific ideas, and lay out a road map, but [also] make sure that I leave some brain space for what the rest of [the] ensemble has to bring to the table. The energy my actors bring can’t help but influence decisions about the storytelling.
Charlie Reuter, our music director, is so smart and enthusiastic in his approach. He’s found a way to be faithful to Mr. Schwartz’s original score, but always allows the individual to put their own voice to it. Annette Ye, who is co-choreographing with me, brings a real modern-movement language to the piece that has also been extremely informative in creating our world.
And then you add Sean Fanning’s set, Shirley Pierson’s costumes and Kevin Anthenill’s sound and video work into the mix! They’ve been great in supporting my crazy ideas, bringing their own crazy ideas to the table and inspiring me to think even more outside of the box.
CB: Now that you’re upon techs, how do you feel about your choices and would you do it all again?
JV: Yes, of course. Yes. We’ve still got a few days in the rehearsal room, and there are definitely a lot of unknowns tech-wise. I think this may be the biggest tech show Diversionary has ever done, as a matter of fact. We’re incorporating some elements that haven’t been seen on that stage before, so it’s risky. But I think we all feel passionate about these ideas and what they add to the story we’re trying to tell.
You know, it’s a gamble taking a show so widely known and re-imagining it. You hope that audiences respond positively. But, I know we’re all beyond grateful for the creative freedom Bret [Young] and John [Alexander of Diversionary] have given us. They occasionally give us funny and confused looks, but then they say, ‘Let’s give it a try.’ As artists, you can’t ask for much more.
“Pippin” plays Sept. 6 through Oct. 14 at 8 p.m. (Thursdays through Saturdays) and 2 p.m. (Sundays), with special performances at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 12 and Monday, Sept. 24. Diversionary Theatre is located at 4545 Park Blvd. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit diversionary.org or call 619-220-0097.