When the entire student and teacher body can suggest a play they’d like to see performed; when all the students, no matter what the major or grade, can audition for parts and crew; and when, for the very first time, the director selected to helm the play is not even in the theater department, well, that’s the very definition of an “all-school” play.
The happy result at Co-Op Arts and Humanities High School is their 2016 spring musical Pippin, directed by first-time Co-Op director and six-year English teacher Valerie Vollono.
Performances are on Thursday at 6:30 p.m., Friday at 2:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., and Saturday at 6:30 p.m. at the school’s well-appointed main stage on College Street.
When Vollono, a veteran six-year English teacher who grew up in North Haven, proposed the musical to the selection committee back in September, her pitch was that the play’s essence is about finding your true self, despite temptations and manipulations by others, and being comfortable with that discovery.
“We found her words powerful,” said Co-Op Director of After School Programming Kjerstin Pugh.
And so Vollono’s idea was launched.
Vollono had been a co-director of the play as a student at Franklin Pierce College. At Co-Op, she had been pitching in over the years mentoring the student stage managers. So she was very much a known quantity among the theater faculty.
Still, the top job in producing a play and being the person in charge of the vision for a production was new and challenging to her. Pippin was a long-running Broadway hit, enjoyed a recent revival, and is always touring or being produced somewhere. One of the reasons is that its basic structure — a troupe of actors in a kind of never-never-landscape offers up a would-be-newbie to the flames of stardom — offers a director infinite possibilities for interpretation.
As the actors strutted through their stuff during a dress rehearsal on Wednesday, Vollono said that she decided to have Pippin, the young innocent, fall in not with actors, but a band of Celtic-style fairies. She has always been interested in that corner of mythology.
So Vollone dressed Pippin in regular shlumpy high-school-kid clothes. She then employed the talent of Co-Op visual arts senior Reilly Leonard in make-up design to transform the two dozen actors on the stage into dramatic creatures who just might be refugees from a Celtic-themed cabaret in 1920s Berlin.
Their branching green swirls about the eyes and swooning, long looks cast spells to lure their victim with glamour, legerdemain, and lurid, black leather pizazz.
“What Pippin has to realize is that all that stuff is fake and the only way to be extraordinary is to find the extraordinary within yourself,” Vollono said.
It would be hard to find another theme as close to the heart of everyday adolescent life in an arts high school, or any high school.
The theme is also close to Vollono’s heart when she wears another hat at Co-Op as advisor to Co-Op’s after-school Gay Straight Alliance, which promotes tolerance and inclusivity.
Pugh said the play selection committee was impressed also with the way Vollono — perhaps because she’s as much English teacher as director — emphasized what Pugh called “craft over spectacle.”
Still, the dance numbers and the songs this reporter heard sung by the cast and the sweet and vulnerable Joey Abate, as Pippin, will certainly satisfy traditional musical requirements.
Vollono is committed to not hiding what she termed the “dark side” of this basically Faustian work. Although Pippin emerges victorious, the play ends with another person being drawn in by the superficial glitz and the power of those high-stepping fairies.
A modest person, Vollono had to be prodded into admitting that although she’s seen and studied many productions of the musical, including the current one in New York that has the troupe as a group of circus performers, “I have not seen it done this way. It is an invention.”
Ticket prices are very modest and there will likely be seats available if purchased at the door to Co-Op’s main stage theater.
However, if you have a profound impulse to reserve, be true to yourself and contact email@example.com.