The last time Nick Akins performed on the Lamb Arts Regional Theatre stage, he was still in elementary school.
Having acted in plays and musicals since he was 7 years old, Akins was involved in the Lamb University program, but he hadn’t been in a show at the Market Street theater after his fifth grade year. Now 21, the actor has been cast as the titular character in Lamb’s most recent musical directed by Donald Short, “Pippin.”
There’s a strong air of familiarity for Akins but also one of uncharted territory. He said there’s a mixture of old and new experiences returning to Lamb theater. The pressure is on for Akins who is cast as the young prince Pippin, a character whose story arc is arduous and varied.
“He wants his life to have meaning, which is something I feel people in their early 20s or maybe even late teens can feel like is this sense of ‘I need to have a purpose. My life has to have meaning. People need to remember me,’” said Akins.
Over the course of the musical, Pippin searches for meaning with the help of a mysterious character known as the Leading Player, who guides him through different life experiences. He tries to live the life of a war hero, a performer in a troupe, a ruler of the people and a family man. The show cleverly leaves an open-ended resolution, leaving it to interpretation.
“What he hopefully will understand is that you can have a purpose, but you can think too big – and if you think too big you might just kind of fall flat every time,” Akins said of his character’s journey throughout the musical.
Although Pippin may be the titular character of the show, the figure that’s arguably most remembered or talked about is the Leading Player.
“You really don’t know who he or she is,” said Akins. “Is she Pippin’s conscious? Is she his internal sense of ambition? She has these puppet hands that sort of creep through the show the whole time and she gives you this uneasy feeling.”
Leading Player might be there to help, or perhaps not. Other characters, Akins added, that come and go throughout the play are likely to be remembered more as opposed to the show’s leading man. There’s a level of mystery that’s weaved into each character.
“Pippin” debuted on Broadway in 1972 and was revived in 2013. Despite the show’s longevity, Akins said it doesn’t feel aged, largely due to the musical’s adaptable score.
“When it came out in the ‘70s, if you listen to that version, it has a very folk rock kind of feel, much like the other ‘70s musicals do,” he said. “In the 2013 revival, it’s the same music but they kind of turned it on its head and has this mystery pop feel.”
The story largely remains the same, he continued, but the atmosphere and music lends itself to different interpretations. If the show were to have another revival 10 years down the line, the music could morph into a new style and still have the same impact.
“It’s got a timeless quality to it,” said Akins.
Whenever Akins thinks of “Pippin,” he thinks of the music and the dance numbers, which seems only fitting for the show that managed to secure Tony Awards for Best Direction of a Musical in 1973 and 2013. The music drives the story forward and the dances carry the audience through Pippin’s journey.
“So much of the story is told through dancing,” said Akins. “There’s this fantastical element of spectacle and beautiful dance. For us, it’s primarily a jazz-style dance. Each song has its own genre a little bit. Sometimes you’ll have a number that’s very precise, small movements – it looks so clean. Other times you have these beautiful turns and spins that are very big and grandiose.”
One of the biggest strengths of “Pippin” is its ability to surprise people. Marketing images are often carnival themed and depict a fun, fair-time mood with its bright colors.
But the musical goes into some strange places, Akins said. The show doesn’t allow the audience to get comfortable with what’s going on before it changes.
“You come in and you’re completely blown away by what you see,” he said. “Don’t be fooled by that bright marketing. Don’t bring your kids.”
The actor said the show’s ending is also unique in that it can be read into as much or as little as possible, depending on the viewer.
“Come in with no expectations and you will be pleasantly surprised.”