‘Pippin’ challenges West Orange High School thespians
Students take on Bob Fosse as the theater program returns to the stage this week.
| 8:12 a.m. October 13, 2021
West Orange Times & Observer
If COVID precautions weren’t challenging enough for West Orange High theater students, their latest project is putting them through their paces in a way only Bob Fosse could.
“I wanted to do something (that) maybe wasn’t on their radar,” West Orange High Theater Program Director Tara Whitman said of “Pippin.” “When I told the students we were doing it, they went silent. I assumed they had no idea what the show was, but they were actually shocked.”
The story of Pippin’s quest for a meaningful life was originally directed and choreographed by Fosse in 1972. The production retained his flair for the 2013 revival, upon which the WOHS version is based.
“We’ve set ours outside an early 1900s circus train,” Whitman said. “The whole story will evolve from the unpacking of the train and having the performers tell the story.”
But set design was probably the least formidable challenge.
Whitman, who began her career as a choreographer, understood the difficulty of the production, but the responsibilities of directing a high school ensemble meant she did not have time to fill two roles. Assistance came from professional dancer, WOHS alum and friend Madison McGrew.
“I guess I was nervous; I do not claim to be an expert in Fosse,” McGrew said.
But she did have experience working with Tampa’s Broadway Theatre Project — a three-week musical theater training program founded by dancer, choreographer, director and Fosse protégée Ann Reinking.
However, training a younger age group was not part of the curriculum.
“The choreography can look and feel a little more adult with all of those hip isolations, but I wanted to be true to it while also giving the high-schoolers a safe space to dance,” she said. “It’s a lot to take on in a very short amount of time. I’m very proud of them.”
McGrew’s schedule limited her time with the cast, but additional assistance came from Aakash Dookhie, who portrays Leading Player and has assisted his fellow cast members in learning the choreography.
“What I did grow up with was a lot of Bollywood-style dancing, which involves a lot of hips and isolations and all that Fosse was about,” he said. “The biggest thing is feeling comfortable in yourself so the movements (that) are particularly awkward feel good and look good.”
As challenging as the dance steps are, there is also the subject matter.
“We do want to make sure everyone is aware, as Pippin sets out to discover himself, some of the content is suggested for a mature audience,” Whitman said.
Discussions with Principal Matthew Turner and students prior to auditioning helped with the decision to keep the original scenes intact.
“The students carry themselves with such professionalism (that) it’s nice to challenge them,” Whitman said.
“Of course, there are some giggles when we get to content that is a little more uncomfortable, but they handle it with such grace,” McGrew said. “They know where the line is, they don’t cross it, but they do know how to portray a concept that’s very smart.”
Updated OCPS guidelines allow students to perform unmasked, but clear masks are being used during rehearsals. Whitman believes the transition from a year of masked performances to being unmasked on opening night will be seamless. And the added emphasis on body language while masks were necessary has been a benefit.
“I feel that students’ physicalization really improved,” she said.
“This is one of those shows where the choreography lives in and out of the musical numbers,” Dookhie said. “It flows through every character from beginning to end, it’s non-stop until the curtain closes.”