Music Theater Works ‘PIPPIN’ is one of the Best Shows You’ll See in Chicago this Season

Pippin was originally conceived as a student production by Stephen Schwartz and Ron Strauss. At that time it was supposed to be a quaint story based on the historical figures of King Charlemagne and his son Pippin. It was performed at the Scotch ‘n’ Soda Club to little fanfare.

After graduation, Schwartz moved to New York and continued to develop the musical. Strauss did not continue on with the project and none of his material was included in the production that eventually was produced on Broadway.

For the Broadway production, producers hired director/choreographer Bob Fosse. Fosse may have seemed an odd choice for a production that’s calling card was that it was nice and quaint. Fosse was known for his dark imagery and sexually suggestive storylines.

Fosse’s impact on Pippin was significant. Although Roger O. Hirson receives credit for the script, Fosse played a huge part in its development. Fosse’s fingerprints are all over the script, the music, the characters, and the dance styles associated with Pippin’s success on Broadway.

Fosse’s version of Pippin didn’t please Schwartz, who fought Fosse tooth and nail on all of his many changes. In fact, Fosse said in an interview with The New York Times that the original Schwartz/Hirson version of the show he was given, is almost unrecognizable in the artistic creation he premiered on the Broadway stage after putting in his own elements and style.


Audiences, however, loved the Fosse version. Like many Fosse shows, it made people think and feel in ways that musical theatre hadn’t done traditionally. And the producers rode Fosse’s brilliance to a Best Musical Tony nomination, with Best Director and Best Choreographer Tony wins for Fosse himself.

Then, after Fosse’s production won all those awards, most of Fosse’s changes were taken out of the musical when it was licensed for other companies to use. It was a far different show, with a far different level of reward and enjoyment for the audience.

That’s where my background with Pippin begins. I was hired on short notice to play the role of Lewis, Pippin’s all brawn and no brains brother. I honestly knew nothing of the show. The choreographer included no Fosse style dance. The characters were flat and listless. The music was enjoyable. But that’s about it.

I learned my songs, dances, and lines.  I did them, then I moved on. Although it got fine reviews, based upon this one and only exposure to the musical, I was unimpressed with the show overall. It didn’t really make all that much sense. It seemed to be missing a lot.

I didn’t give it much thought after that. I just filed Pippin away as a show I wouldn’t be much interested in visiting again. Little did I know, I had just done the “wrong” version.

For the 2012 Broadway revival, the rights holders put the Fosse elements back into the show. And wow, did people respond! It was the Tony award winner for Best Revival of a Musical, and also scored big wins in multiple other categories. It also won the top prize in the Drama League Awards, the Drama Desk Awards, and the Outer Critic Circle Awards.

This 2012 version of Pippin appears to be the script that has been licensed to Music Theater Works for their monumentally outstanding production. It has all the elements of the original Fosse Broadway production, plus is complimented by absolutely phenomenal direction by Kyle A. Dougan and the obvious diverse talents of his creative staff.

Seeing this production made me embarrassed to have been in a prior version, because the one I was in was chewed up bubblegum compared to the Music Theater Works version playing through June 25 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts.


Everything about seeing Pippin at Music Theater Works is rewarding. People were dancing in their seats unable to help getting pulled into the incredible production taking place on stage (and at times in the aisles). Music Theater Works’ Pippin was one of the best nights of theater that I have had in the past decade.

So, what makes the Music Theater Works production of Pippin so darn good? A lot of that credit goes to director Dougan, assistant directors Sasha Gerritson and Patrick Tierney, choreographers Mollyanne Nunn and Kaitlyn Pasquinelli, music director Justin Akira Kono, and dramaturg Nathan Lamp.

The two co-choreographers work together seamlessly. All the dance numbers are phenomenal reflecting many different styles of dance, and yet despite being the creations of two minds, they all blend together perfectly. Music direction and conducting by Kono make this a musical one you could easily sit back and enjoy with your eyes closed (although the visuals are so darn good, I wouldn’t recommend missing them).

Despite historical figures from the Middle Ages being the focal characters of the musical, Dougan and his team of creatives have given the show a 1990’s motif – and that is a ball of fun to experience. This is brilliantly reflected in the outstanding costuming of Jazmin Aurora Median and assistant Kristen Brinati, and media designs by David Sajewich and projections designs by Anthony Churchill.

As brilliant as the artistic direction, choreography, and music is, the cast of Music Theater Works’ Pippin makes it the incredible theatrical experience that it is. They will give you goosebumps.

I see a lot of theater, reflecting a wide range of budgets. It’s understandable that a community theater show or a storefront theater show aren’t going to be able to afford the same bells and whistles as a mid-level theater, or a top tier theater.

Music Theater Works isn’t the biggest theater organization, but nor is it small potatoes. They are a good, solid provider of quality entertainment. Pippin, though, puts them into a new class of excellence.


I would put this ensemble up against any of the ensembles I have seen at the downtown theatrical powerhouses with massive budgets and Broadway stars. They are remarkable dancers and excellent singers. And even though they don’t have a lot of dialogue, they sell their characters with their expressions. The way they lock eyes with the audience is mesmerizing.

The ensemble includes Jenny Couch, Ciara Hickey, Alex Iacobucci, Lacey Jack, Samira Jasmine, Katie Kotila, Justin Payton Nelson, Mollyanne Nunn, Jordan “J.Ro” Ordonez, Kaitlyn Pasquinelli, Dane Strange, and Eustance J. William. Swings and understudies include Adeera Harris, Wilson Paul Hicken, Jenny Rudnick, Bob Sanders, and John Locke.

Honestly, the ensemble is so good that it is almost painful to point out any particular standouts, because they are all outstanding. However, there are a few of the singer/dancer/actors who had just a touch extra in their footwork, their voice, and the electricity in their eyes. Extra kudos to Mollyanne Nunn, Katie Kotila, Jordan “J.Ro” Ordonez, and Ciara Hickey.

Of course the leads aren’t that shabby either. Okay, that’s in jest. The leads are incredible.

Connor Ripperger is the title character and he plays it like it was created just for him. He has a sweet and tender voice that is utterly expressive and conveys both deep and subtle emotions. Sometimes to get a performer with this quality of singing, the director has to chose to sacrifice the acting quality of the role. No such dilemma here.

Ripperger’s characterization of Pippin is astonishingly fresh and downright spectacular. He plays the comedy. He plays the drama. He plays the confusion. He plays the ambition. He plays the heroism. He plays the failure. He plays the lover. And, ultimately he plays a man trying to figure out his place in the world – if there is one. It is all magnificent.

The Leading Player, a character created by Fosse, in the master of ceremonies for the production, leading a group of performers to guide Pippin through his story and motivate him to thrill the audience at the end with a grand finale that will be remembered through all time. For Music Theater Works the role is played with sass, devilish charm, and sinister smiles by Sonia Goldberg. She is a powerhouse vocalist and actress who captures the audience right away and never lets go.

Pippin’s father Charlemagne is played delightfully by Thomas M. Shea. Like Ripperger as Pippin, Shea knows when to be dramatic, when to be comedic, and when to be downright outrageous. For it is very clear that outrageous and over-the-top are qualities that Dougan has encouraged in his performers and it works!


Thanks to Shea’s ingenious acting and hair, wig, and makeup designer Alice Salazar and assistant Melanie Saso, Charlemagne is a bigger than life clown that would fit right in with Mayor McCheese and Ronald McDonald.

Pippin’s half-brother Lewis is played like I can’t imagine anyone having envisioned the role before. Andrew Freeland is hilarious as Pippin’s brattish, childish, and clueless brother. He is vertically challenged, which is played to the hilt with physical comedy. He is also challenged in the ways of good taste.

Freeland’s Lewis is the ultimate loser brother with power, the likes of which you might see on television’s The Royal Gemstones or Succession. I bow down to Freeland for having created a version of this character that could go down in history as one of the best ever.

Rounding out the cast are Savannah Sinclair as Lewis’s mother Fastrada, a sexy harlot with ambitions for her son’s success outside of his natural abilities and intelligence; Kathleen Puls Andrade as Pippin’s hot-to-trot cougar Grandmother Berthe; Desiree Gonzalez as Pippin’s love interest Catherine, and Di’aire Wilson as Catherine’s son Theo. All of them are wonderful thanks both to their spectacular talent, and also to the way Fosse livened up the characters – particularly Andrade as a comedic Berthe who is just a riot.

Additional shout outs go to scenic designer Shane Cinal, lighting designer Andrew Meyers, sound designer Matthew R. Chase, and props designer Ellen Markus. Additional recognition goes to Music Theater Works’ director of development Joe Keefe who always makes sure patrons and artists are happy. He’s one of the best in the business.

I had only two minor complaints about the production. One of the actors had visible tattoos that didn’t seem in line with their character. Like many actors today, I have tattoos myself. As such, whenever I perform the costumer, the director, the makeup designer, and I have to decide if my tattoos are appropriate for the character and if not, how to conceal them with costume pieces or makeup. Music Theater Works’ production of Pippin would be all the more enjoyable with a little change in makeup and costuming relating to this issue.

That, of course, is minor. As is my other point. I was prepared to give this show a standing ovation, as most of the audience was. It is that good of a show.


However, the curtain call was drawn out a bit too long, leaving the audience a little confused on when it might be appropriate to stand. This partially robbed the performers of the ovation they truly deserve. This show, as much as any musical I have ever seen, deserves a standing ovation.

Music Theater Works’ production of Pippin directed by the company’s artistic director Kyle A. Dougan, choreographed by Mollyanne Nunn and Kaitlyn Pasquinelli, and with music direction by Justin Akira Kono, is one of the best shows you are going to see in Chicago this season. Don’t make excuses. Make plans. See this show before it closes on June 25.

Pippin plays Wednesdays at 1 PM, Fridays at 8 PM, Saturdays at 2 PM and 8 PM, and Sundays at 2 PM at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts located at 9501 Skokie Blvd, in Skokie, IL.

For ticket information visit or call the box office at (847) 673-6300.

Peace. Love. Trust.

Rikki Lee Travolta

For more reviews visit: Theatre in Chicago – your source for What’s on Stage in the Chicago Area


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