‘World’s strongest girl’ comes to life in Playmakers production
By Robin Miller
August 01, 2012
“I think that she believes that she’s that strong, so she is. It’s all a part of her world where anything is possible, so this strength is possible.” Paige Gagliano, director
Pinkalicious was first.
Then there was Junie B.
The combined force of their personalities would be equivalent to a stampede of horses, but Pippi’s energy alone would fuel a rampaging herd of rhinoceroses.
Pippi, as in Pippi Longstocking, who has given herself the title of “World’s Strongest Girl.” Danielle Adams plays her in Playmakers of Baton Rouge’s musical production, Pippi Longstocking, which opens Friday, June 15, in the Reilly Theatre at LSU.
Adams’ name and face will be familiar to Playmakers’ audiences. She portrayed both Pinkalicious and Junie B. in the theater company’s 2011 productions.
“But I have to say, out of the three, Pippi is my favorite,” Adams said. “She is very different from the other characters. She is larger than life, and she lives in a world of her own where she is the strongest girl in the world and anything is possible.”
Pippi’s life is every child’s dream of freedom and power.
Pippi Longstocking is based on the story by Astrid Lindgren. It was adapted for the stage by Thomas Olson with music by Roberta Carlson. The musical made its off Broadway debut earlier this year on April 20 in the Theatre at St. Peter’s, and now it makes its Baton Rouge debut with this Playmakers production. The only problem is a lot of kids these days aren’t familiar with the precocious 9-year-old, including many members of the cast’s children’s ensemble.
“I had to look up some of the books and YouTube videos of the movies,” Adams said.
Emily Mack and Michael Guillot also had to do their share of research. Mack plays Annika and Guillot plays Tommy, a brother and sister who eventually become Pippi’s best friends.
They’d never heard Pippi explain how her full name is Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Ephraim’s Daughter Longstocking. They never knew about her short patchwork dress, oversized shoes or mismatched, thigh-high stockings. And they’d never ever seen Pippi’s fiery red pigtails that are so tightly wound that they stick out sideways from her head.
“I loved Pippi when I was little,” Paige Gagliano said. “I even dressed as Pippi for Halloween one year, using coat hangers to make the pigtails stick out.”
Gagliano directs this production, which is a landmark of sorts for her.
“It’s my first time to direct a play in the Reilly,” she said. “It’s a wonderful space, and it’s so vast. It’s big enough for Shawn to build a house in.”
She is referring to Shawn Halliday, Playmakers’ producing artistic director. He’s the set designer for this show, and yes, the set includes a house, Pippi’s house, in which she lives only with her pet monkey and horse while her father sails the south seas.
Pippi’s father is a buccaneer. He’s lost at sea when the story begins, which basically means that he’s taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way. Pippi knows he’s OK, and she bides her time in the Swedish community of Villa Villekulla while waiting for him.
This would be the perfect setting for a good dose of culture shock for any other character, but not Pippi. No, her sudden appearance in the village has the opposite effect. Pippi rocks the community’s foundation with her unconventionality, assertiveness and, yes, her superhuman strength. She frequently mocks and dupes adults, reserving her worst behavior for those who are pompous and condescending. And though she has had little schooling, she knows more than most of the children her age.
“At one point, the teacher asks, ‘Do you know the capitol of Portugal?’ and Pippi says, ‘Of course, it’s Lisbon, I’ve been there,’” Gagliano said. “She’s been living on the ship with her father and his pirates, and she’s sailed all over the world. So, the knowledge the kids in her class have is from books, but the knowledge she has is from experience.”
Gagliano is right. Pippi is rich in common sense.
She also has a well-honed sense of justice and fair play, and shows respect for adults who treat her and other children fairly. She has a talent for spinning what many people would consider tall tales, but as Pippi sees it, the tales are neither spun nor tall. They’re truth, part of the world she’s created, and her truth is told through them.
“She says what she means, and she means what she says,” Gagliano said. “She says exactly what’s on her mind, and she doesn’t buy into being afraid. She teaches the people in the village that change is OK, that people will come in and go out of your life, but you’re still you.”
Gagliano, paused, then couldn’t help smiling.
“Pippi just enjoys life,” she said.
Lindgren originally created the story of Pippi for her 7-year-old daughter Karin. Lindgren was already an award-winning author of children’s books in Sweden, but the strongest girl in the world would become her most popular character when Pippi Longstocking was published in 1945.
The story has since been translated into 76 languages and has generated several sequels. It also has been adapted into several film and television series, including a 1988 American feature film starring Tami Erin as Pippi, backed by a supporting cast of Eileen Brennan, Dennis Dugan, John Schuck and Dick Van Patten.
And now Pippi has found her way to the stage.
“This is a good musical,” Gagliano said. “There’s so much that happens during the span of the play. It’s said that Pippi is holding her father’s gold, so there are villains that are after her. She jumps off her house, and then she has that incredible strength.”
Pippi will say that her strength matches that of 10 policemen, but its source is never explained. Pippi’s fans could easily assume that the strength is supernatural, which it very well may be.
But Gagliano believes Pippi’s strength comes from elsewhere.
“I think that she believes that she’s that strong, so she is,” she said. “It’s all a part of her world where anything is possible, so this strength is possible.”
This is a good lesson for children. Even adults.
True, such physical strength likely wouldn’t be found in a real life 9-year-old girl, but that’s not the lesson here.
“It’s the idea that you can do anything if you put your mind to it,” Gagliano said.
And Pippi does.
“I love her,” Guillot said.
Again, he plays Tommy in this production. He was seen last summer as Jeremy Jacob, the main character in the Playmakers musical How I Became a Pirate.
He’s now 17 and will be a senior at Baton Rouge Magnet High School in the fall. Mack, who plays his sister Annika, is 15 and will be a sophomore at The Runnels School.
This is her ninth Playmakers production.
“I’ve been in a lot of the children’s ensembles,” she said.
But this time, she gets to play one of the main characters, the older sister who’s a little bossy at first.
“But she starts loosening up when she gets around Pippi,” Mack said.
“Pippi opens up the world for them,” Guillot added.
The musical, like the book, is set in Sweden, meaning some Swedish words and phrases are woven into the dialogue. But rest assured, the audience will not be confused.
“The words are used at times when the characters are exclaiming something,” Guillot said. “The audience won’t have any problem understanding it.”
Besides, the Swedish phrases only will enhance the action, which will be carried out by Adams in the character of Pippi Longstocking.
“I fell in love with her the minute I started learning about her,” Adams said. “Pinkalicious and Junie B. are both great characters, and each of them have their own way of thinking. But neither of them are the force of Pippi.”
So, prepare for the stampede.