BWW Reviews: One for the Kids with Wheelock Family Theatre's PIPPI LONGSTOCKING

By: May. 09, 2013
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Sitting in an audience full of five year olds and their patient parents, and watching the kids uproariously respond to children on stage fooling their teachers and running away from bumbling policemen, I have never felt so old. I realize that I have finally made the transition to the adult side of the population, as throughout the production, I found myself thinking that of course children should go to school, it is foolish to let a horse and a monkey live together in the same house, and that the leading lady should really learn some manners. That all being said, I was not the intended audience, and every child around me simply loved the Wheelock Family Theatre's production of Pippi Longstocking. And there is no question in my mind as to why.

Pippi Longstocking, a story that has been around since the 1940s, tells of a little girl who is left by her pirate father alone with her horse and pet monkey, Mr. Nilsson, to fend for herself and teach the meaning of fun to the rule-following children of the town. Along the way, Pippi fights burglars and policemen alike, shows off her unmatchable strength at the fair, throws cake at a dinner party, and brings happiness and friendship to her peers. In this production, Pippi was played by Sirena Abalian, a spunky young actress who commanded the stage and never ran out of energy. She was vivacious and adorable, obviously having just as much fun as the children watching her in the audience.

The production was absolutely stunning, and even I found myself in wonder of the colorful set pieces and constantly changing locations. The sets were all double sided, switching back and forth between the polite, respectable side of the grown-ups, to the wild, graffitied, color ridden home of Pippi and her animal friends. The set pieces turned and moved, often assisted by the cast members, so that Pippi herself would control the change to her house, or the other children would push away the tamer set pieces once Pippi's influence started to take root. Lighting design was constantly changing as well, and the bright, fun colors in Pippi's house, as well as the mysterious, dreamlike lighting in her memories of her parents, illustrated the mood beautifully.

This story was originally written in the 1940s, and quite honestly, the script doesn't seem to have changed much since then. This production did a great job of modernizing the language, making it very accessible to the children in the audience, but it straddled the line between a period piece and a modern production, particularly in its use of costume and music. The adults and the children of the town looked as if they were right out of the 1940s or 1950s, very reminiscent of Mary Poppins. But Pippi herself dressed very modernly, like any wildly outfitted kid of today. A similar inconsistency was found in the music, which was prim, proper, and old fashioned with the other children, but very hip hop based when Pippi came out. Her house was also decorated in a graffiti style, which too suggested a more current telling of the story. Perhaps this was an intentional choice, to distance Pippi from the town folk, but I was never sure when or where this piece was taking place.

My favorite part of this production, however, was its accessibility to the hearing impaired community. There were two very talented, very present actresses who signed the entire piece from within the production (rather than simply translating from the side), and there were moments Pippi herself used sign language. Additionally, there was a beautiful dream sequence, with Pippi interacting with her absent parents, that was done entirely in sign language. In fact, two actors in the piece were hearing impaired. As someone who looked at the production a bit differently than the intended audience, I was really captivated by the effortless and stunning incorporation of sign language.

The biggest indicator of this production's success came not from my own experience watching it, but from the reactions of the children around me. They were captivated by the action onstage and their intense focus on the work was only interrupted by their explosive laughter anytime Pippi showed her stuff. This show did its job entertaining its intended audience, and I was more than impressed with the incredible production value.

Written by Astrid Lindgren; Adapted for the stage by Thomas W. Olson; directed by Wendy Lement; Set Designed by Matthew T. Lazure; Choreographed by Laurel Conrad; Lighting Designed by John R. Malinowski; Costume Designed by Melissa Miller; Music Designed by Peter Stewart; Sound Designed by Roger J. Moore; Props Designed by Marjorie Lusignan; Stage Managed by Lindsay D. Garofalo; ASL Interpreted by Adrianne Kathryn Neefus and Desiree Weems

CAST INCLUDES Sirena Abalian as Pippi, Grace Brakeman as Annika, Cyrus Veyssi as Tommy, Donna Sorbello as Mrs. Prysselius, Julia Talbot as Mr. Nilsson, Elbert Joseph as the Horse; Kortney Adams as the Teacher, Margaret Ann Brady as Thunder, Ricardo Engermann as Bloom, John Davin as Klang, Mark Linehan as Larsson, Sharon Squires as Mrs. Settergren, Jane Staab as Mrs. Granberg, Cliff Odle as Captain Longstocking, Kerry Thompson as Angel Mama, and a talented Ensemble of children.

The Wheelock Family Theatre's production of Pippi Longstocking runs through May 12 at their theater at 200 Riverway, Boston, MA. For tickets, call 617-879-2300 or visit their website,

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