The 'Pippin' Profiles: Sabrina Harper on the joy of being conniving, clever and sexy

Pippin_Sabrina_Harper_1But Sabrina Harper seems like such a nice person.

Yet there she is playing nasty Fastrada in the national touring production of Pippin the Musical. She’s the Queen, the conniving and manipulative wife to King Charlemagne. In other words: Pretty much the only person under the Big Top who wants to see poor Prince Pippin perish.

“She is quite the clever one,” Harper says with a laugh. “She is the one where it all begins.” 

From the musical’s opening song, Magic to Do, “Fastrada is catapulting Pippin on his journey,” said Harper. “It’s a wonderful role because I get to be manipulative, conniving clever and sexy. I can’t see her as the evil stepmother. She just has a little bit of a … darker side.

“But I am a very nice person,” I swear.

To be fair, Harper doesn’t actually play Fastrada. She plays one member of a troupe of circus performers who tell the audience the story of Pippin — meaning she’s an actor who plays an actor who plays Fastrada. 

Harper, born in Laguna Beach, Calif., is a triple threat: Classical ballet dancer, soprano and actor. And thanks to Pippin, you can add knife-juggler. “I have enjoyed picking up some new circus skills here and there,” she said. “I’m always looking to fill up my bag of goodies.”

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Harper, granddaughter of noted California architect Tom Harper, trained with the Stuttgart Ballet in Germany. She performed with the Vienna Volksoper before being cast as Meg in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera at the Neue Flora Theater in Hamburg, followed by other musicals in Berlin, Austria and Switzerland. She played Peggy Sawyer in the first German production of the new 42nd Street in Stuttgart, and Ulla in the first German production of Mel Brooks’ The Producers. She also took on foxy Roxie Hart in the Swiss Broadway production of Chicago (like Pippin, originally choreographed by Bob Fosse). And she played Cassie in the Austrian version of A Chorus Line. Harper made her Broadway debut last year covering six roles in the Tony Award-winning revival of Pippin, and was cast as the first Fastrada in the national touring production that launched in Denver on Friday (Sept. 6) and plays through Sept. 20.

Here are excerpts from our exclusive conversation with Sabrina Harper:
(Note: Pippin production photos by Terry Shapiro) 

Pippin_Sabrina_Harper_2John Moore: So where are you at in the process?

Sabrina Harper: We’re on a good track and heading in the right direction. It’s really exciting. We’re training daily and I just feel really, fully involved right now. Full speed ahead.

John Moore: I know you are a professional dancer, but I imagine this show has you in the best shape of your life.

Sabrina Harper: That is true. It is very physically demanding for the whole team, especially when you consider the dancing and the aerial work and the acrobatics all together. We are all physically fit, but you still have to constantly continue to work. Like with any sport, you have to continue to push yourself to try new things, because when you are just doing the same thing over and over, it becomes a repetition, and your muscles just get used to it. So we continue to try new things and to advance ourselves.

John Moore: So how do you go from dancing in a musical like A Chorus Line to something like this that’s more high-flying? 

Sabrina Harper: I would compare the role I play in Pippin to the Cassie dance in A Chorus Line. I have my one spectacular dance, and it has some magical illusion tricks to it. That’s full-force, beautiful choreography by Chet Walker in the style of (the late ) Bob Fosse. I also understudy the Leading Player and also the role of Berthe, so I am right there training on the trapeze, either alone or with a partner. It’s really quite exciting. In my spare time, I have taken to learning how to do some aerials, too — but that’s just for my own fancy.

John Moore: I was talking with Lucie Arnaz (Berthe) about how you are all literally flying without a net. And I’ve heard people say, ‘Well, maybe there’s not a net, but surely something is in place to protect these people from falling. They aren’t really doing death-defying acts on the stage every night.’ But they really are, aren’t they?

Sabrina Harper: They really are performing death-defying acts on that stage every night. Pippin is the extraordinary character who is searching for spectacular moments in his life. And we are a company of extraordinary performers. I can promise you: We do not have a net. We do not have any security hooks on us.

John Moore: Then how do you keep it safe?

Sabrina Harper: If you are aware of your surroundings, you will be safe. We have an amazing team working with us, and everyone is trained to just be very, very aware. You can see them all around, especially when Lucie is doing her trapeze act. They all are there, and they are just like cats watching her. If at any moment something were to happen, they are trained to jump up and be there and protect her. These are highly skilled circus performers. Some of them have worked for Cirque du Soleil, and some come fresh out of the circus school in Montreal. When we first started rehearsals, we would do improv exercises designed for us to become aware of one another and our surroundings. We have been growing as a family and becoming a troupe. We’ve also been taught juggling with knives, and we have fire, and there are a lot of other dangerous elements. So you have to be focused. And if you are, then nothing bad will happen. Knock on wood: Nothing has happened.

John Moore: Still, I have to wonder: How does the union ever let this happen?

Sabrina Harper: Oh, I hear you. When I was working in Europe, I did a show where all I had to do was come down on a trapeze from the top of the proscenium. But even just from there, I had to have a harness. They would never believe what we get away with on Pippin. But we are so well-trained. Gypsy Snider, our circus choreographer, has been a wonderful partner on our team. She has been helping to get us ready. If we’re ever not ready, then the tricks will not be done. Period.

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John Moore: So you’ve done some hard-core Fosse in your time. What’s the difference between doing actual hard-core Fosse — and dancing ‘in the style of Fosse’?  


Sabrina Harper: I have to say Bob Fosse was an amazing dancer. But if the general public knows ‘the Fosse style,’ they think of jazz hands; or the turned-in, pigeon-toed feet; or certain inverted hip movements. But he had so many other movements and choreographic elements. Long lines. Beautiful legs. Just very sexy; very sensual. You can watch YouTube videos of him dancing, and he will just turn and jump, and he just blows you away with his ability as a dancer. Now we have Chet Walker. And because Chet worked with Fosse, I want to say it’s really not that different. I love that there are numbers in the show and we are doing exactly the same choreography Bob Fosse did in the original in 1972. But I also love that Chet was able to incorporate his own choreography and add essential elements, too. He has created beautiful lines and beautiful movements that are fun and enjoyable to execute. The movements tell their own stories. They show strength, or they show passion. It’s storytelling with your body.

John Moore: Chances are, most of the people who see Pippin in Denver have not had the opportunity to see this new incarnation in New York. If they have seen it, most likely they will have seen school or community theatre productions. They really have no idea what they are in for, do they?

Pippin_Sabrina_Harper_4Sabrina Harper: They are in for a whole new theatre experience. This production is really extraordinary in all categories. We are the first to really to morph circus with dance, music and theatre, and pack it all into one amazing story. And it’s just so honest and heartwarming. I hope that we will be able to touch all of you in Denver the way we have been able to touch the audiences who have come to see us in New York. It’s a just a wonderful, colorful theatre experience for all ages. I think you are going to enjoy it, and I think you are going to leave the theatre humming a song, and I think you are going to go home and think about your life. Pippin asks you to think about your journey: What is important to you in life? Finding that one moment … or finding true and lasting love? I think we are all faced with finding our own corner of the sky every day that we go through life. And that is what we are going to bring to Denver.

John Moore: So … this is happening.

Sabrina Harper: It is, and I am super excited. I have never been to Denver before, and I’m really looking forward to this experience. I have some friends in the Denver community from high school, so I’m looking forward to seeing them all.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

‘The Pippin Profiles’ interview series:
 


Pippin
: Ticket information

Sep 6-20, 2014 • Buell Theatre
Accessible Performances • Sep 20, 2pm
Tickets: 303.893.4100 • Toll-free: 800.641.1222 • TTY: 303.893.9582
Groups (10+) • 303.446.4829
Online • www.denvercenter.org

Our previous Pippin coverage on MyDenverCenter.Org:

Video series: The ‘Pippin’ Personalities: Five questions with creatives
‘Pippin’ meets Denver: Media Day photos

Broadway’s Matthew James Thomas to play Pippin in Denver
Hello, Denver! ‘Pippin’ cast and crew arrive

Photos: Pippin loading in Denver, rehearsing in New York

My three Pippins gather at Sardi’s to honor John Rubinstein
Photos: Exclusive look at first ‘Pippin’ rehearsal
Lucie Arnaz joins Denver-bound ‘Pippin’ as Berthe

From Pippin to Pappa: Denver tour launch will feature John Rubinstein
2014-15 season: ‘Pippin,’ ‘Kinky Boots’ are Denver-bound!

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