A scene from the musical “Pippin.” (Michael J. Lutch photo)
Patina Miller knows how to take charge.
The talented, African American actress fired up the nuns’ choir as lead character Deloris Van Cartier in “Sister Act” on her way to a recent Tony nomination.
Now, the 28-year-old South Carolinian has taken on the demanding role of Leading Player in the American Repertory Theater’s revival of the Stephen Schwartz musical “Pippin” (through Jan. 20).
Miller says she was inspired for her role by Ben Vereen, the multi-talented artist who won a Tony in the original role. But Miller also says that she is making the part all her own.
As Miller tells the story, A.R.T. Artistic Director Diane Paulus advised her not to try to be Ben Vereen. Besides, she continued, “It’s a new interpretation with the 40th anniversary of ‘Pippin’ in 2013.”
In the A.R.T. revival, she explained, Leading Player is “a really strong woman with masculine and feminine energy. She has a lot of charm.”
At the same time,” Miller noted, “I’m the ringmaster of my circus.”
That circus is rather different from the real story of Pippin (767-811), the son of legendary French king Charlemagne who commuted Pippin’s death sentence for complicity in a failed assassination attempt on the king. Pippin spent the last 20 years of his life in a monastery.
In the Roger O. Hirson book for the musical, Pippin actually kills Charlemagne and becomes king. Lacking direction, Pippin takes cues from Leading Player and her troupe of fellow actors playing out Pippin’s personal odyssey for fulfillment and an extraordinary life.
“It’s my job to take Pippin on his journey but also to entertain the audience,” Miller says. “There’s a lot at stake for Leading Player. We’re all working together to get the actors to go on the journey Leading Player wants them to go on. Essentially, Leading Player is a kind of director within the show itself.”
As part of her preparation for the entertainment component, Miller learned trapeze over the summer.
“I started taking lessons with my trainer,” she said. “I’m doing a trapeze number near the beginning of the show.”
For Miller herself, the role of Leading Player and the musical revival have proved a new form of validation.
“Luckily for me,” she noted, “I make sure that I’m confident vocally. There’s nothing too challenging. It’s been fun singing these songs and getting the lyrics out.”
Patina, equally confident with the dancing, had high marks for choreographer Chet Walker, a member of the original cast of “Pippin.”
Besides Miller, the large cast includes Matthew James Thomas as Pippin; Andrea Martin as Pippin’s grandmother, Berthe; Rachel Bay Jones as Catherine and Terrence Mann King Charles as Charlemagne.
Miller also praised director Paulus, with whom she previously worked in the role of Dionne for the latter’s Central Park summer 2008 revival of “Hair,” which went on to win a Tony.
“I’m really excited to be reunited,” Miller says.
Pippin, American Repertory Theatre, Loeb Theatre, Cambridge, through Jan. 20. 617-547-8300 or americanrepertorytheater.org.
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