‘Pippin’ Combines Endearing Characters with Delightful Spectacle

Trey Morehouse | Staff Writer

One wouldn’t think that a play loosely based on the life of the son of Charlemagne would be fodder for a successful musical comedy, but the UNCW production of “Pippin” proves otherwise. A fun, whimsical, ‘70’s-esque journey through an anachronistic and fourth wall breaking world, “Pippin” exceeds expectations and has wowed audiences young and old.

Pippin’s story is surprisingly filled with a great deal of metaphorical and poetical merit concerning themes of what it takes to truly live a life of happiness and contentment. The plot itself is rather roundabout, following Pippin as he struggles with his coming of age.

Pippin leaves his college at the beginning of the play declaring that, “he can’t find what he needs in books,” and that he needs, “to be where sprits can run free.” He leaves his old life of learning behind, going home to his father King Charles. Pippin grows increasingly listless, exploring various philosophies on life and modes of living, never finding the satisfaction he yearns for. All the while, Pippin is pushed forward and advised by the mysterious Band of Players and the Lead Player who may not have the best intentions in mind for the young protagonist.

Interim Chair Frank Trimble directs with a great deal of care and nuance. He has assembled a terrific and experienced cast, with only a few weak links. Frank Trimble collaborates with UNCW dance instructor Nancy Carson for the intense, jazzy and often fanciful choreography. The choreography for the Band of Players stands out as being both whimsical and at times frightfully unsettling. As the play advances, it becomes clear that the Band of Players are manipulating the protagonist Pippin for their own ends, and the danger this presents was communicated well through the choreography.

Sophomore Joey Stephens plays the lead and is a perfect fit for the young and naïve Pippin. Stephens’s portrayal of Pippin was often childlike in the way he approached the world. Always trusting of those around him and often encountering new experiences with a bit of awe, Stephens performance is both endearing and engaging to watch. The musical number “Welcome Home” portrays Pippin as a questioning youth who can’t seem to get what he wants from his senior advisors. As Pippin continually attempts to have sincere conversation with his father, he is rebuffed by the confused King who seems to have little understanding of his son’s feelings. The comic delivery in this scene (and others like it) had an almost Monty Python quality to them.

Junior Tre Cotton performs the role of the Lead Player, possibly the most physically and vocally demanding role in the cast. A role originated by the Tony Award winning Ben Vereen, Cotton slips into this character with a great deal of ease. In the opening number, the Leading Player joyfully declares that the audience join him and his Band of Players as they explore Pippin’s story. It’s through the Lead Player’s narration and conversations with Pippin that the plot develops. Cotton has just the right amount of stage presence and vocal ability to pull off this demanding role.

Sophomore Eddie Ledford performs his second UNCW performance this year in his role as King Charles, Pippin’s father. Ledford was seen early this season playing various roles in UNCW’s “Book of Liz.” Ledford radiates comedy with his flamboyant portrayal of the eccentric King. His booming voice and energetic stage presence will likely give him a long career in musical theatre.

Junior Sophie Amelkin, a Music Education major, is one of the more experienced members of the cast, appearing regularly in musical events both on and off campus. One of her most recent performances has been Muriel in City Stage’s “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” Amelkin gives a delightful cameo as Pippin’s grandmother, stealing the show for the all too short time she is on stage. Her musical number “No Time at All” was one of the high points of the show and illustrated Amelkin’s uncanny ability to deliver a musical performance that is both technically excellent and enjoyable to watch.

The Band of Players is more than just your average background ensemble and is a character in itself. Along with their leader (The Leading Player), the Band of Players is the key to moving the plot in Pippin. Each performer delivers a terrific performance and executes the choreography and songs with professionalism. Each Player deserves a personal applause for pulling off what might be one of the more demanding ensemble parts to be found in American musical theater.

This production has proven that UNCW has what it takes to produce quality musical theatre. With production values this high and with such a talented student body to pull from, the question now should not be whether or not UNCW will continue to do musical theater in the future but rather, what’s up for next year?

“Pippin” will be playing for one more weekend in the Cultural Arts Building on the Mainstage. Show dates are Nov. 11-14; Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $5 for students and children, $10 for UNCW employees, UNCW alumni and seniors, and $12 for the general public.