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Play review: 'Pippin'

Pippin 1

Pippin 1 - Leading Player (Ian Lerch, center) dances to the song “Glory” with musical troupe members Sarah Oates (left) and Emma Broback (right) during the battle between the Romans and the Visigoths. Photo by Anastasia Stepankowsky

Admit it. At least once, you’ve imagined your life as a musical. Exploring a young boy’s show-tune accompanied search for meaning, the Undergraduate Theater Society’s (UTS) latest production, “Pippin,” hits just the right notes, allowing the audience to live out their musical fantasies.

First shown on Broadway in 1972, the play tells the story of a young prince, Pippin, (played by an actor UTS wishes to remain a surprise) on his search for his one true calling in life. Starting off in the Roman Empire and then rambling across time, he is followed by a musical troupe whose leading player (Ian Lerch) narrates the tale and promises magic and miracles to the audience.

Yes, the exploration of free love and the satirical take on the glory of battle — most likely inspired by Vietnam given the play’s 1970s origins — seem more outdated than insightful, but this is merely the music and lyrics, written by Stephen Schwartz, that UTS had to work with.

Lerch, as the Leading Player, seamlessly embodies a whimsical, but sinister pied-piper persona with the dancing chops to make Bob Fosse — the Broadway version’s director and Tony award-winning choreographer — proud. Pippin’s singing voice is clear, beautiful, and tinged with the innocence necessary to make his part believable.

His travels are accompanied by a live band situated at the back of the stage, which greatly enhances the musical numbers without distracting from the action at center stage.

Though the story of a boy trying to find his way in the world has been told countless times, “Pippin” manages to change up the scenery by continuously breaking the fourth wall. The Leading Player selects Pippin from the audience at the start of the play, hence UTS’s desire to keep the actor a secret, and hands him a script.

As the story continues, Pippin stops reading from his lines and earnestly throws himself into just about everything that comes his way — whether it be ruling over the Holy Roman Empire or partaking in a cast-wide orgy — before deciding it’s just not for him. With equal fervor, the Leading Player seems hell-bent on making sure the boy’s life stays by the book, reprimanding characters for deviating from the printed word.

These moments give an otherwise cheesy plot line metaphorical resonance. Pippin, despite being a prince, is the everyman. Any of the audience members could be in his shoes. They understand — and have even lived — his struggle to fit the part he has been handed. They know the difficulty of reading the right lines.

What’s more, Pippin’s search for a role in life that will be extraordinary and fill his life with magic is a poignant theme to explore in a university setting.

Additional individual performances make the play even more enjoyable. Hannah Knapp-Jenkins is delightfully funny as Pippin’s grandmother Berthe, and Emma Broback is wonderfully conniving as Pippin’s stepmother Fastrada, who sarcastically describes herself as “just your everyday house wife.”

When all hope for finding his calling appears to be lost, Pippin is taken in by Catherine, a widow with a foot fetish (a fantastic Rachel Guffey), who shows him that maybe all he needs is to be the head at someone’s table.

Though he must give up the musical troupe, makeup, lighting, costume, and band to be with Catherine — by now the fourth wall is rubble at the audiences’ feet — he is able to see what is truly important.

“Pippin” explores what is left in one’s life when the glitter, bright lights, and delusions of grandeur are subtracted from the mix. It dares to conjecture that, at the end of the day, satisfaction must be a choice.

“Pippin” opens today at the Cabaret Theatre in Hutchinson Hall.

The verdict: UTS's take on Broadway's long-running show is enteraining and meaningful

Reach reporter Samantha Leeds at arts@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @SamanthaJLeeds

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