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Gabrielle McClinton stars in the national tour of the Tony Award-winning musical ‘Pippin’

Colette Greenstein
Colette Greenstein has been a contributing arts & entertainment writer for the Banner since 2009. VIEW BIO
Gabrielle McClinton stars in the national tour of the Tony Award-winning musical ‘Pippin’
Left to right, Borris York, Gabrielle McClinton and Mathew deGuzman star in “Pippin.” (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Growing up in Los Angeles, Gabrielle McClinton always knew that she wanted to be a performer, even as far back as the fourth grade.

“I remember writing on a little proof card to my teacher saying that I wanted to be a ballet actress. I knew I always had those dreams,” says McClinton by phone recently. “I started taking dance classes first when I was about six years old. And then, I would do this musical summer camp every single summer. We would do different musicals. Once I joined that program, I knew I was meant to be doing this and I just stayed with it.”

And stay with it she did, all the way through high school and college, where she earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in Music Theatre/Acting from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama. Since then, the working actress has appeared in several regional productions, including the national tour of Green Day’s “American Idiot,” playing Johnny’s rebellious and free-spirited girlfriend ‘Whatsername.’ She also appeared in the film “Won’t Back Down” starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, and on the television series “The Mentalist.”

One of her biggest dreams — appearing on Broadway — materialized in 2013 when McClinton starred as the Leading Player in the Tony Award-winning musical revival “Pippin” under the direction of Tony Award-winning director Diane Paulus. “Pippin,” which originally premiered on Broadway in 1972 with Ben Vereen as the Leading Player, tells the story of Pippin, a young prince, who’s on a journey to find meaning in his life.

McClinton is thrilled to be returning to one of her most challenging and exciting roles, that of Leading Player, in the first national tour of “Pippin” which opens at the Boston Opera House on February 2. In anticipation of the tour coming to Boston next month, the actress discusses what drew her to “Pippin” and what she’s learned about herself in her role as the Leading Player.

What was it about “Pippin” that made you want to be a part of this show?

Gabrielle McClinton: ‘Pippin’ is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Even when I got the audition I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I didn’t really know anything about the show. I remember getting the material and the words just fit in my mouth. It just felt, not necessarily easy, but it felt really free and comfortable. I was like ‘Oh, my god. This just feels really great.’ And then I saw the show on Broadway and I just kept sobbing. It affected me so much. And it’s just so extraordinary because not only does it take a million different skills to pull this show off; I mean you have to be a great dancer, a great singer, a great actress, and you have to do acrobatics. It’s so fulfilling in that regard, I’m stretching myself to the most extreme of everything that I have to do. Artistically and technically it’s very fulfilling in that way, but then also ‘Pippin’ has such a deep message. It’s all about exploring your life and going through the journey of life, what it means to be extraordinary, and really figuring out who you want to be in your life. That’s why it’s so moving because you have this beautifully visual show but then also it’s asking you some of the deepest questions. It’s so fulfilling in every regard that it can be sometimes overwhelming, but I know it’s probably one of the hardest most fulfilling jobs in my life.

You get to embody all these wonderful and fascinating characters. Are there ever any remnants of these characters that kind of stay with you?

GM: I think every character that an actor or actress does stays with them at some point. As in every role that I’ve played, they’ve all informed my life in a certain way. I’ve definitely taken pieces of them with me; I also feel like I’ve left pieces of myself with those characters. And definitely with ‘Pippin,’ at first the Leading Player, she’s a devil-like character and I didn’t think I was like that at all. You know [laughs] I’m definitely not the devil. That was definitely a stretch to find that darkness because I’m mostly a happy-go-lucky person. It was a stretch for me to find that inner darkness, but the more I do this character, the more I’m finding deeper parts of myself. That I’m like ‘Oh, I guess she lives deep down inside of there.’ I definitely learned a lot about myself. I’ve been able to explore more parts of myself and been able to challenge myself too, and figure out new things.

This musical has such a great history with Ben Vereen performing as the Leading Player to John Rubinstein, who originated the title role in the 1972 production and is currently in the national tour. Do you feel a sense of responsibility to the original vision of the show in any way?

On the web

Broadway In Boston presents “Pippin” Tuesday, February 2 through Sunday, February 14 at the Boston Opera House, located at 539 Washington Street in Boston. For tickets and show times, visit www.boston.broadway.com/shows/pippin-baa/.

GM: I think that John is so supportive and so onboard with all of us making it our own that I don’t really feel any pressure to live up to the history of the show. But I definitely have a deep regard. Ben Vereen is incredible. I’ve watched his videos and really admire him and have taken pointers from him, for sure. I definitely feel that you want to live up to those expectations but at the same time it is a different ‘Pippin.’ It’s a new ‘Pippin’ for the 21st century. I feel that I have been able to make it my own and also honoring the past and the roots of [Bob] Fosse. So, that’s been exciting. As I’ve said before, John is so supportive and having him there keeps us rooted in what ‘Pippin’ really is.

What do you hope that audiences take away from seeing ‘Pippin’?

GM: I hope that they surprise themselves and let themselves go on the journey and feeling what they’re feeling without judgement, and enjoy themselves. I really think they’ll be surprised by what they’re seeing on stage, and to go along the journey with everyone.