Happiness is not necessarily found in the pursuit of extraordinary endeavors. It is often right there under our noses, found in the ordinary moments of everyday life.
That’s the key lesson explored in UNCG School of Theatre’s production of “Pippin”, which opens on Friday, Sept. 27, at the Taylor Theatre.
With a score from four-time Grammy winner, three-time Oscar winner, and musical theater giant Stephen Schwartz, “Pippin” is the story of a young man’s journey to be extraordinary.
Under direction and choreography by School of Theatre’s Erin Farrell Speer and musical direction by Dominick Amendum ’01, a cast and production team of over 200 students, faculty, and staff have worked for the last six months to bring the show to life.
Assistant professor Speer, who specializes in musical theater, made her Broadway debut serving as assistant director to Tony Award winner Christopher Ashley on “Escape to Margaritaville.” Amendum is Smart-Tillman Artist in Residence in Musical Theatre, and has been splitting his time between UNCG and working on the upcoming production of Dreamwork’s “The Prince of Egypt” at the Dominion Theatre in London.
Speer and Amendum acknowledge that working as directors and mentors on university productions such as “Pippin” complements their professional musical theater careers, and vice versa, which means that they set a high standard for what they expect from their students.
“My job is to mentor our young students and to bring them as close to a professional rehearsal process as we can, and to teach them what it means to work at a higher level than they’re used to,” says Speer. “Our connections to the profession give us an opportunity to engage the students in ways that are fresh and relevant.”
Amendum agrees. “I don’t dumb it down just because I’m doing university theater. Right after we started working on ‘Pippin,’ I went to London for two weeks to work on ‘The Prince of Egypt’ with some of the most brilliant singers on the West End. Then I came back, and it was interesting because I sandwiched this process and it wasn’t any different. I wasn’t approaching the work any differently.”
The student actors have taken on complex roles for the show, some of which require playing two roles simultaneously. “We’re asking the students for very sophisticated thinking and performances on this,” says Speer.
Parker Perry, a senior drama major, plays the lead in the show.
“As a senior about to graduate and head out into the real world, I see so much of myself in this character – this young man coming into his own, trying to find where he belongs in life. It hits very close to home,” he says. “Pippin goes on such a remarkable journey from beginning to end, on top of all the singing and dancing and physical comedy required. It’s hard work, some of the hardest I’ve ever done as an actor, but it has been incredibly rewarding.”
Junior acting major J. Andrew Speas has learned a lot in the process of preparing for the show. “I am so fortunate that I will not simply play the Leading Player, but I am getting the chance to create a human being that lives in a lavish and exciting world such as the one that comes to life on the Taylor stage. This process is different in so many ways because it is the first time that I have had to flex every single actor, dancer, and mental muscle.”
Following a decade of social unrest and upheaval, “Pippin” debuted on Broadway in 1972 and was directed by Bob Fosse. The musical has gone through numerous variations since, including revival and licensed versions.
How do you honor the original and still have a fresh perspective on a piece that is 50 years old?
“You have to have a fresh lens. I don’t think it should be a museum piece, and I think Bob Fosse would agree. This production feels a little darker and a little bit more outrageous. I do think that it’s a fresh take on this story, and that I’ve found an approach that feels new,” says Speer.
For all “Pippin” show times and to purchase tickets, visit https://vpa.uncg.edu/single-event/pippin/2019-09-27/.
Check out highlights from the dress rehearsal below.
Story by Matthew Bryant, University Communications
Photography by Jason Speer