Memories of Melody Top: Remembering Milwaukee's Summer Stock Theatre

Recreating the title role he played on Broadway and on national tour, Barry Williams made his Melody Top debut in PIPPIN. Already an experienced professional in show business at the age of only 23, he became a favorite of audiences and the Top's president, treasurer and business manager, Mr. William Luff. Williams returned to Milwaukee for four more hit productions "under the dome" including GREASE (1980), OKLAHOMA! (1981), WEST SIDE STORY (1982) and BYE BYE BIRDIE (1984). Alan Weeks, a theater veteran with 16 Broadway credits, received raves from local critics as the Leading Player.

Photos from PIPPIN, August 15-27, 1978

Pippin 1 Pippin 2 Pippin 3 Pippin 4 Pippin 5 Pippin 6 Pippin 7 Pippin 8 Pippin 9 Pippin 10

PIPPIN: Season's Strongest Offering

By Jay Joslyn, the Milwaukee Sentinel, Wednesday, August 16, 1978

The opening of the Melody Top Theatre's production of PIPPIN Tuesday night proved two things.

The rock-beat examination of medieval history is, with some exceptions, the strongest offering of the season. It sets a tremendous level, which MAN OF LA MANCHA will have to meet during the season's last two weeks.

The second proof of the evening was equally obvious. The Top's new, solid top can take an onslaught of driving rain without a drip. The composition dome, of course, was not able to muffle the disrupting peals of thunder.

PIPPIN appears to be a history written by a socially conscious history dropout. The flagrant anachronisms make a medievalist cringe. But the relevance of the asides, comments and outlook cannot be denied.

However, the essence of PIPPIN is showmanship. It moves at a headlong pace that showers sparks of excitement and creates waves of ovation.

In the center of that excitement are two splendid actors with substantial Broadway experience and credits.

As the magical master of ceremonies and dramatic catalyst, director Stuart Bishop has cast Alan Weeks, who rocked Broadway in the title role of THE WIZ. In his current role he is pure electricity, a source of incredible energy.

Repeating his Broadway and tour role, Barry Williams is a wonderful Pippin. His naivete is as appealing as his sly worldliness is pointed.

The two are supported brilliantly, not especially by the rest of the creditable cast, but by costumers Jan Valentine and Bruce Goodrich, who have created a veritable pageant of irreverent glamour, color coordinated and flashing.

PIPPIN should be an explosion of nearly continuous movement.

Alas, what Melody Top choreographer James Smock has prepared and Bishop has accepted, if not encouraged, is an exercise of blatant banality with an overdose of sexuality that often crosses the border into the land of lewd.

Happily, the PIPPIN book and the performance of the lead are strong enough to carry this unwarranted load of exhibitionism.

Mib Bramlette in costume for PIPPIN

Mib Bramlette as a soldier fighting for King Charles and the Holy Roman Empire in PIPPIN (1978). Costume design by Jan Valentine and Bruce Goodrich. Photo from the collection of Mib Bramlette.

PIPPIN Star Energizes Role

By Roxane Orgill, the Milwaukee Journal, Wednesday, August 16, 1978

Barry Williams, best known as the eldest of the three sons in TV's THE BRADY BUNCH, does not disappoint his fans in PIPPIN, the musical that opened at the Melody Top Theatre Tuesday night and runs through August 27.

He brings a wide-eyed sincerity and limitless energy to the role, even if his pleasant voice does not carry all the way to the back rows.

The name Pippin comes from a historical figure, Pepin, son of Charlemagne, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. But Stephen Schwartz, who wrote the music and lyrics, and Roger O. Hirson, who wrote the book, have used history only as a springboard for a story about a young man trying to avoid following his father's footsteps while searching for his own identity.

We watch Pippin try out the roles of soldier, lover, revolutionary and husband. It is with the last that he stays, "trapped, but happy." Williams bounds up and down the set's seven platforms of varying height with enough energy to propel the show to success.

Or almost. Some other cast members have less to offer, except for Alan Weeks, who plays emcee and magician, and Evelyn Page (Berthe), a newcomer to Melody Top. Weeks has a huge voice and a talent for putting his whole body into the act. Miss Page turns Pippin's grandmother into a dynamic, crusty, young-at-heart old lady with a low, raspy voice.

But Judith Ann Conte, as Pippin's flirtatious stepmother, sings out of tune in spots and does not carry beyond row three. Paul Straney, as Charlemagne, tries a little too hard in his tent debut, delivering lines mostly in garbled shouts. Though Kathy Taylor (Catherine) sings clearly and tunefully, she could make herself more believable as the woman who steals Pippin's heart.

The directing team of Stuart Bishop and James Smock makes PIPPIN move quickly, but not quickly enough. Some of music director Donald Yap's tempos are too slow for the snappy tunes. The chorus members move quickly on and off stage, managing to handle a great variety of props and costume changes in minutes. Yet their movements – consisting mostly of hip wagging – get to be monotonous after the first half hour.

Barry Williams in the Grand Finale of PIPPIN

Barry Williams performing in the Grand Finale of PIPPIN. Photo from the collection of Allen McMullen.

The History of the Show

(This excerpt was taken from a souvenir program sold to patrons of Melody Top Theatre in 1978.)

The idea for the show existed for about six years before it came to production. It originated at Carnegie Tech, where songwriter Stephen Schwartz was a student. In 1965 or 1966, a classmate of his, Ron Strauss, stumbled on a paragraph in a history book that mentioned a son of Charlemagne named Pepin. As is often the case, father and son did not get along too well. That even a powerful emperor and his son would have difficulties like so many present-day fathers and sons intrigued Strauss.

He suggested to Schwartz that they do a musical show on this theme for the school's annual "Scotch 'n' Soda" musical, and it was put on at the school the following year under the title of PIPPIN, PIPPIN, so successfully that when they graduated, the authors headed for New York and stage careers. They tried to get PIPPIN produced by auditioning it for dozens of off- and on-Broadway producers, but they could arouse no interest.

Strauss gave up and left New York and his stage aspirations. But Schwartz stayed on. After he won his success in GODSPELL, it was easier for him to get a hearing for his PIPPIN idea. Finally, a long-experienced producer, Stuart Ostrow, brought the idea and assigned a season librettist, Roger O. Hirson, to write the story. Schwartz's music and lyrics were retained.

The first performances were given, as a tryout for the New York run, in Washington, D.C. at the Kennedy Center in late September of 1972. The New York opening took place on October 23, 1972, to the accompaniment of enthusiastic praise from critics and audiences. The show had a packed-house run for many months later, at least until mid-summer of 1973.

Then, during the normal box-office slump for all stage shows in summer, PIPPIN fell off sharply. Whereupon the producer mounted one of the most extensive advertising campaigns on television ever taken for a stage show.

The way the box-office receipts of PIPPIN bounded upward became the talk of Broadway. The show was again a sellout hit until the fall of 1976, when patronage, if not at full capacity, continued to be overwhelmingly strong – this in one of Broadway's biggest theaters. It finally closed on June 12, 1977 after its 1,944th performance – and run of four and a half years – passing the 1,925 times SOUTH PACIFIC had played. Thus PIPPIN was assured of being in the records as one of the longest-running musicals in Broadway history, having already exceeded the notable runs of THE SOUND OF MUSIC and MAME. On the fourth anniversary of the show's opening on Broadway on October 23, 1976, it was announced that during the Broadway run the show had grossed $21,346,742, earning net profits for its producer and backers of $3,280,000.

Within a few months after the New York opening, successful presentations were mounted in London, Mexico, Australia, Holland and Austria – and other countries like Belgium and Holland followed suit. Among the original Broadway cast were Ben Vereen, John Rubenstein, Jill Clayburgh, Eric Berry, Leland Palmer and Irene Ryan.

Autographed Magazines

Click on the images below to see enlarged versions of each magazine cover.

Pippin Autographed Magazine 1 Pippin Autographed Magazine 2

PIPPIN Cast of Characters

Leading Player:Alan Weeks
Pippin:Barry Williams
Charles:Paul Straney
Lewis:Eric Aaron
Fastrada:Judith Ann Conte
The Head:Clyde Laurents
Berthe:Evelyn Page
Peasant:G. Jan Jones
Noble:Dennis Batutis
Field Marshall:K. David Short
Catherine:Kathy Taylor
Theo:Kyle Dannies

Players: Eric Aaron, Ann Arvia, Dennis Batutis, Mib Bramlette, Judith Ann Conte, G. Jan Jones, Bradley Keating, Robert Kellett, Nancy McCloud, Beth Morgan, Diane Nicole, Jo Jean Retrum, Bruce Senesac, K. David Short, Jan Wahl, Jerry Ziaja.

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