A young man in a crown stands center on a box while a group of actors surround him, arms raised in praise or possibly supplication.
Conner Ripperger (center) surrounded by the ensemble of Pippin at Music Theater Works Credit: Brett Beiner

Pippin was a forerunner in the big swing of musical theater away from the happy-ever-after era that defined the genre’s “golden age.” The 1972 show by Stephen Schwartz (music) and Roger O. Hirson (book) ends not with a whizbang, all-hands-on-deck, colored-light spectacle of song and dance, but with a lone man standing onstage, divested of costume, makeup, and pretty much anything else that makes theaterland a respite of extraordinary in the real world that’s almost always only ordinary.

Through 6/25: Wed 1 PM, Fri-Sat 8 PM, Sun 2 PM; also Sat 6/10 2 PM; North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, 847-673-6300, musictheaterworks.com, $39-$106 (25 and under half price)

Music Theater Works’s staging, directed by Kyle A. Dougan, takes that ending from quizzically ordinary to utterly bleak. When last the audience sees the title character—a fictionalized version of the eldest son of Charlemagne, at the close of a quest to find fulfillment circa 780 A.D.—it’s left to conclude he’s contemplating unaliving himself entirely. It’s a jarring image and a stark punctuation to a production that clearly shows why Pippin remains relevant over half a century since its premiere.

Anchored by a charismatic, slightly-to-overtly menacing Leading Player (a captivating Sonia Goldberg) and featuring a fresh-faced Pippin (Conner Ripperger), the musical’s endlessly alluring score (performed by music director Justin Akira Kono’s pocket orchestra) sounds terrific throughout, as it follows the title character’s search for meaning through war, murder, power, sex, and love. Whether Pippin finds his corner of the sky is anyone’s guess, but there’s tremendous appeal in the quest as it plays out in MTW’s staging. 

Dougan leans too heavily into an overarching directorial concept that puts a lot of unnecessary projection design involving 1980s/90s news footage and vintage video games on stage, not all of it running smoothly at the production I saw. The show can stand on its own and the ham-handed concept only turns into a distraction. But as distractions from ordinary life go in general, Pippin offers a provocative escape.