Unconventional Pippi Longstocking defies expectations, and so does director Wendy Lement’s frothy stage version of the classic children’s book. Lement’s approach to “Pippi Longstocking,” now playing at the Wheelock Family Theatre through May 12, focuses on joy and whimsy, with a whole lot of chances to dance, dance, dance.
Powered by Sirena Abalian’s high-energy performance as Pippi, this production covers all of the story’s important plot points, but delivers them with an extra flourish. The emphasis is on Pippi’s determination and her conviction that “if we believe in ourselves, we’re bound to win,” and the result is a celebration of every individual, with all of their unique qualities.
With her superhuman strength and ignorance of social graces, Pippi functions as every child’s fantasy — one who easily wins a competition with a circus strongman; foils an attempted burglary; outwits the police when they attempt to place her in an orphanage; and still enjoys playing games with the children next door, Annika (Grace Brakeman) and Tommy Settergren (Cyrus Veyssi).
Pippi’s arrival in a small Swedish village is a bit of a mystery. Her mother, she says, is an angel in heaven, and her father is a pirate. When he is lost at sea, she moves into an old house with her monkey named Mr. Nilsson (Julia Talbot, operating a puppet) and her horse, played by the wonderfully expressive Elbert Joseph. Once there, she turns the little village upside down, questioning authority and creating harmless chaos at every opportunity.
Pippi’s embrace of anarchy is always rooted in a well-meaning effort to get everyone to enjoy themselves. Even when she defies a teacher (Kortney Adams) in the classroom, Lament makes the point that Pippi’s dissatisfaction stems as much from the teacher’s inability to communicate with her students (including a deaf child that Pippi signs with), as it is about learning what she determines is useless information.
Later, Pippi is embarrassed when she acts inappropriately at the Settergren’s coffee party, but the message is that nobody’s perfect and we can learn from our mistakes.
Abalian’s performance opens with an uninhibited dance sequence and never wavers throughout the show. The combination of her dazzling smile and her enthusiasm make her irresistible, and it’s no wonder neither burglars nor policemen can defeat her.
Some of the best moments of the show, in fact, come when Pippi fearlessly faces trouble. The trouble appears in the first act when burglars try to steal the gold her father has left her. As the burglars, Margaret Ann Brady and Ricardo Engermann deliver antics that are truly inspired, with a level of physical comedy that leaves the audience roaring with laughter. In the second act, Pippi uses her brains as well as brawn to take on two police officers. As the Keystone Kops-inspired policemen, John Davin and Mark Linehan find every bit of humor in their scenes, including visual jokes; physical comedy that includes bumping, tumbling, and a bit of dancing; and amusing banter.
Matthew T. Lazure’s two-tiered set pieces are painted with a wonderful combination of orderly patterns that turn to reveal wildly spray-painted designs when we enter Pippi’s world. Laurel Conrad’s choreography, set to Peter Stewart’s recorded music, provides moments of delightful abandon that connect each scene to the next, culminating in a finale that sends the audience out dancing.
Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.