Many teenagers have missed out on performing in their school theater programs over the past year as the COVID-19 pandemic has kept actors and audiences apart.

So Jim Johnson is pleased to be able to open the 2021 season of Susquehanna Stage Company in Marietta this week with a youth production of the Stephen Schwartz musical “Pippin,” the story of a young man on a journey to find meaning in his life.

“These teens did not get to do their high school musicals last year,” says Johnson, the company’s managing artistic director. “So I’m excited for the kids to perform in front of people.”

In the space of a couple of months, Jim Johnson’s focus has gone from worrying about keeping a community theater afloat through a pandemic shutdown to running between rehearsals for two different shows nightly — and preparing to add a third to his rounds.

“I sat around for a year, not doing a whole heck of a lot, and now everything is just boom, boom, boom,” Johnson says.

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Wearing a mask during a rehearsal, Ryan Kimbark portrays the title character in Susquehanna Stage Company’s upcoming production of “Pippin.” 

After having to cancel its 2020 season, Susquehanna Stage had a different show on the schedule for the 2021 season opener.

The set for that show, “Noises Off” — a play about the onstage and backstage antics of a group of actors — fills the main stage of the renovated church building that is the Marietta Center for the Arts.

Complications related to the pandemic — casting, seating limitations and more — caused that show to be moved to June.

“Noises Off” is rehearsing on the main stage, and “Pippin” in the smaller Gallery Stage space, where it will be performed over the next two weekends to socially distanced and masked audiences of 60 to 70 people. The July show, the musical “Follies,” also about theater folk, soon starts rehearsals downstairs.

It’s up to a five-piece pit orchestra and a cast of 22 teenagers from all around the county to welcome audiences back to Susquehanna Stage, after a dark year, with “Pippin.”

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Gerson Malave, as The Leading Player, narrates a scene during a rehearsal for Susquehanna Stage Company’s production of the musical “Pippin.”

Magic to do

It’s appropriate that “Pippin” opens with a troupe of actors, helmed by the Leading Player, inviting the audience into the magic of its storytelling.

The troupe lets unfold the story of a young prince, loosely based on a historical figure, the son of King Charlemagne, who makes choices about falling in love, going to war and taking on the power of a king, all in an effort to find meaning and significance in his life.

“I chose it as the youth production because I think it’s about a young person’s journey through life,” Johnson says.

“My vision for the show is that there is a group of actors that travel around and they have brought this story, called Pippin, to this audience tonight,” Johnson says. “It’s sort of like the old kind of Renaissance performers going from stage to stage, outdoors” and pulling props from a prop box.

“Pippin is a young man who’s trying to find his purpose in life,” says Ryan Kimbark, 17, a Lancaster Mennonite High School student who fills the show’s title role. “But he doesn’t know what he wants to do. So it’s him trying to find what he likes and what he actually wants to do with his life — his purpose.

“Especially with my age, nearing the end of high school, it’s kind of like all the questions (we’re asking): ‘What are you going to do with the rest of your life?’ ” Ryan says. “It’s kind of really relatable.”

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Rehearsing for the upcoming Susquehanna Stage Company production of “Pippin” are Jonah McDonald, left, as Charlemagne; Ryan Kimbark, right, as Pippin; and Gerson Malave, back, as The Leading Player.

“This entire show is a group of actors that the Leading Player has gathered together to create this kind of circus group experience for the audience,” says Gerson Malave, 15, a Donegal High School student who’s portraying the Leading Player.

“And the Leading Player is this extravagant and flamboyant personality that guides the audience through what’s happening, and the characters, throughout the story,” Gerson says. He encourages Pippin “to come out of his shell and do things that aren’t part of his comfort zone, and kind of helps him find something fulfilling that he desires.”

“I think in the character I’ve gained a lot more confidence than before,” Gerson says, “because it’s such an out-there and confident character.

“I think this is such a perfect show to come back (with) because it’s so magical and big and out-of-the-box,” Gerson says.

“I feel it brings more of a sense of community in it because we’re all the same age, all going through the same things and performing the same show,” Ryan says.

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From left, Gerson Malave, as the Leading Player; Jered Mackison as Lewis, and Ryan Kimbark as Pippin, rehearse a scene from the Susquehanna Stage Company’s upcoming production of the musical “Pippin.”

A learning experience

The arts center has undergone some sprucing up during the pandemic — a power-washed exterior, new paint and lighting fixtures in the lobby, a new license to sell beer and wine during intermission.

But Susquehanna Stage hasn’t been presenting shows or selling tickets for more than a year.

“We know that this year, with COVID, with limited seating … that we have to cut costs a little bit,” Johnson says, so his team has had to get creative with staging “Pippin” in the smaller gallery space.

“We’ve hung streamers, we’ve hung banners,” he says. “The staging is using blocks, and the blocks move to become different things. … When you cut costs with production elements, you have to make up for it with creativity and choreography.”

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Maddie Ciliento, as Fastrada, rehearses a scene for Susquehanna Stage Company’s production of the musical “Pippin.”

While not a circus-themed production like the 2013 Broadway revival, there will be elements such as a contortionist and a juggler in the show, Johnson says.

“We’re teaching the kids some of the original (Bob) Fosse choreography” from the 1972 Broadway show, Johnson says. “I love the fact that we’re doing that, so the kids understand … what Fosse was all about. It’s a learning thing for them. How to put a show together and be flexible.” And how to rehearse in masks and perform in face shields, amid a pandemic.

“It’s the experience the kids have,” Johnson says. “It’s learning music together. It’s making new friends. It’s hanging out with each other. That’s what a community theater, to me, should be — those experiences.

“The kids see … that there are choices in life,” Johnson says, “and Pippin sometimes makes good choices, sometimes he makes bad choices.”

At one point in the show, based on a choice Pippin makes, the Leading Player pulls the plug on the magic surrounding the story.

“It’s kind of a kick in the pants, when you look at that and you say, ‘Yes, what is life without theater? What is life without magic and lights?’ Its kind of dull,” Johnson says.

“But it’s OK,” he adds. “We survived a year without live theater. We got through it, and we’re coming back.”


• What: The musical “Pippin” at Susquehanna Stage Company, Marietta Center for the Arts, 133 W. Market St., Marietta.

• When: Friday through May 23. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sunday, with an additional 2 p.m. show Saturday, May 22.

• Note: Seating is limited and social distancing will be observed; masks are required.

• Admission: General admission tickets are $25 for adults; $20 for children under age 18. Advance ticket purchases are recommended. Order online at On-site box office hours are not currently available. If you have any questions, call 717-426-1277.

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